Karin Marwick and hubby Neville Watson have always dreamt of travelling way up north to the Liuwa Plain and Kasanka national parks to witness two amazing migrations: the wildebeest from Angola, and the Kasanka fruit bats. Recently that dream became a reality thanks to the folks from Ultimate Adventures.
Both of us are avid nature and camping enthusiasts and have travelled South Africa extensively in our trusty Defender 90 known as Mr. Landy. It has taken us from Durban to the tip of the continent, we have explored the beauty of the East Coast, the West Coast, Kgalagadi, Namaqualand, the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) and many nature reserves and game parks in between.
We have travelled to almost every corner of South Africa, and with each journey we are more in awe of the extraordinary country we live in. The arid beauty of Namibia has inspired us both to become keen photographers. This was after a three-night/four-day paddle down the Orange River, followed by the arid beauty of the Richtersveld and the Skeleton Coast, with a highlight being the Spitzkoppe. These experiences stirred a deep desire in both of us to continue exploring the magnificent continent we live on.
While work dictates our travels for now, we hope to undertake extensive journeys for longer periods once we have both retired. Having reached what many would describe as middle age, we are determined to prove to ourselves and inspire anyone who doubts their ability to really live life after 60. This is truly the best time of life to live your dreams.
Botswana was our initiation to a wilder version of southern Africa. As much as they say that once you have the sands of the Kalahari in your shoes, you will always return, the same can be said for Botswana. The moments that imprint on your memory are plentiful, and the chance to discover the true balance of nature are a stark reminder to us humans that we have much more to learn from nature’s diversity.
In November 2021 our dream of visiting Zambia became a reality. I met a lady who had booked a tour with Ultimate Adventures that would take them to the Liuwa Plains National Park and the fruit bat migration in the Kasanka National Park. Despite the fact that we are generally lone travellers, after some research on Ultimate Adventures, which is owned and run by Simon and Des Steadman, we felt assured that if we toured, this was the company to join. I sent a request asking if we could replace any cancellations that were made, since the tour was fully booked by that late stage. I received the call from Simon in early October advising me that there had been a cancellation after a booked client had fallen ill. Without hesitation we signed up for Zambia, giving us just four weeks to prepare!
After much deliberation we made the decision to leave our trusty Mr. Landy behind for the first time ever. He had been our home for a number of 18-day overland trips and we were very torn. However, being given the opportunity to put a Toyota Land Cruiser to the test proved to be too tempting. We even discovered there was a fridge in the centre console, and since we were travelling to a very hot destination with average temperatures of 38 to 42°C, it made sense to take the Cruiser.
Our introduction to the Steadmans took place at the very impressive new border crossing at Kazungula in the northern corner of Botswana, with the rest of the group arriving in dribs and drabs. Most tour members had travelled up from South Africa and spent the night at various camps close to the border. Fortunately, Simon had briefed us extensively before departure, to ensure the border crossings and dreaded Covid-19 tests were less of a challenge. All that information proved very useful when we crossed into Botswana, making for a smooth transition.
We were delighted to have Simon guide us through the Zambian side of the border which was a lengthy and slightly more trying process. If a man could be a mother hen, that would be Simon. He herded everyone through, calmly and efficiently managing all the issues that arose.
The adventure begins
Our first evening in Zambia was spent on the banks of the majestic Zambezi River. The sunset that evening left us all in awe, and the campfire kuier accompanied by some exquisite culinary delights, courtesy of Ultimate Adventures’ travelling chef Master P set the trend for the rest of the tour.
Each evening around the fire Des would move from one guest to the next making sure everything was just right, and that all members on tour were satisfied. Simon briefed us each evening after dinner so we were all aware of the next day’s start time and what to expect. As always, there were those who partied till late, while others like ourselves crept off quite early to our tents with full bellies and heavy eyelids.
The harsh reality of Zambian roads struck on day one. It took seven hours of driving to cover approximately 100km.We had thought Simon was joking during his briefing the night before! The potholes had potholes, and the drive consisted of swapping from the left to the right on sand roads running parallel to the main road, with the occasional privilege of a kilometre on a patch of tar. At this stage we lost all feelings of guilt that our Mr. Landy was parked at home. The Land Cruiser handled the rough roads in style, and we were very grateful for the comfort we experienced despite the rough terrain.
When we finally arrived at Kabula Lodge, our group tumbled out of their vehicles – tired, but triumphant. Once camp was set up and the nightly dinner circle was in progress, the tiredness faded into war stories about how all our vehicles and drivers had overcome the hurdle of the dreaded road. Master P pulled out all the stops and produced a 60th birthday cake for one of the tour members. This was baked on the campfire while we were setting up camp, and was presented beautifully decorated and iced. What a memorable dinner party it was!
We spent the following day relaxing on the deck overlooking our favourite river. The birdlife was out of this world, and even though the fish were not on the bite, we experienced yet another glowing sunset while trying our luck chasing tiger fish.
From Kabula a number of us undertook a trip up north to Ngonye Falls National Park in tremendous heat. Much entertainment was provided as we made our way across the slippery rocks to this spectacular waterfall. Our fridge succumbed to the heat, so we decided to make a trip back down south to Sesheke where a very helpful local referred us to another local technical whizz. He worked his magic in a sandy back yard and had our fridge up and running within three hours using basic tools. The fridge is still working to this day!
A surprise party hosted by Simon and Des was the highlight for the touring birthday boy. There were snacks and treats put together by Master P, laid out on a very festive table to celebrate the milestone, along with decorations and balloons set up by Des. These are the touches that impressed us so much while on tour with Ultimate Adventures – they always go that extra mile to create special memories.
The Zambian people are the most wonderful hosts. They are ever so humble, always smiling, and cannot do enough for the tourists. Surely the proudest nation we have experienced. The villages are clean and everyone appears to have a task. They are a hive of activity, with rows of fruit and vegetable trees interspersed with goats and donkey carts. Colourful shops are everywhere, with delightful hand-painted names above the entrance doors, and vibey music emanating from their interiors. We simply had to open our windows each time we drove through a village, to truly experience and enjoy this African atmosphere.
Challenging, but worth it!
To reach Liuwa Plain involved a pontoon river crossing with a soft sand exit on the opposite bank. Simon briefed the group and set the example by reversing onto the pontoon, trailer first. One by one we loaded our vehicles onto the more user-friendly, front-loading pontoon and crossed amidst cheers. No one else had the courage to use the pontoon that required the reverse method. That travel challenge over, ahead of us lay a long journey on soft sandy roads.
Arriving at Liuwa Plain National Park was the signal to leave the final vestiges of work and city behind. Here we encountered vast open spaces covered in lush green grass inviting the adult wildebeest and their newborn calves to
indulge. The pans, which stretch to the distant horizon, are surrounded by lime-green grasses and yellow flowers, interspersed with pink flowering bulbs. We will always treasure the sunsets, the sounds and the sights. What a privilege to watch the baby wildebeest galloping at top speed, challenging one another then returning for a drink from the mother. The story of Lady Liuwa the lioness was ever present in our minds. It was easy to visualise this powerful lioness dominating the plains in her prime years. Her story on YouTube is testament to her unique bond with this pristine landscape.
We were reluctant to leave our piece of paradise at Lyangu Camp but eager to move on to Kasanka. We braved the pontoon again and after driving via Mongu we arrived at Roy’s Camp in Kafue. Lush green lawns, spotless ablutions and a delicious dinner provided the perfect overnight stop. The following day we headed for Mumbwa through the region’s miombo woodlands, where many charcoal sellers make their living by burning the wood from the forest and stacking filled bags on the roadside for the delivery trucks to collect. We continued through Mumbwa and Kabwe, refuelling when necessary. Another very poor road with enormous potholes called for much concentration. We arrived at camp in time for another magnificent sunset, and after enjoying a delightful dinner, we were lulled to sleep by the grunting of hippos. The later 09:00 start was a treat, as it was just a short drive to Kasanka National Park, and a welcome break after a few early mornings required to cover the long distances each day.
Batty for bats
Kasanka National Park is situated on the south-western edge of the Lake Bangweulu basin, and is 450km² in size. The world’s largest mammal migration takes place in the tiny forest situated within this park when approximately 10 million fruit bats fly in to Kasanka at the start of October. They feast on the fruit trees and by the new year they re-disperse all over northern Africa.
The rehabilitation and uplifting of this piece of paradise is a result of an initiative from 1987 by British expat David Lloyd who teamed up with local farmer Gary Williams to form the Kasanka Trust, and through funding and personal resources, sought permission to rehabilitate the park. It has since become part of the National Parks& Wildlife Services and is run in partnership with the Kasanka Trust and the local community.
Due to a history of heavy poaching there is a noted absence of big game. The diversity of the miombo woodlands, swamp forests, grassy plains, swamp and riverine forest does however attract an abundant birdlife, along with small pockets of game. The rare blue monkey found in the forest had us all constantly on the alert, and we were very excited when they finally arrived to entertain us in our camp.
We were allocated Pontoon Campsite site number 2. Our shower water was delivered pre-heated by the local camp staff, who proudly arrived at camp to announce with broad smiles that our shower was ready. After a hot shower, it was time to view the bats. The bats are viewed from decks to allow a high vantage point. On our first evening we witnessed the spectacle of millions of bats taking off overhead for their night-time feast on the local forest fruit.
The wonder of this spectacle is indescribable. The sound of the wings and the accuracy of their paths had us in awe. These are not regular bats that are guided by sonar. They are unique in that they use sight and smell as their guide. The following morning, we climbed the 12m tower that has proudly been erected by the Ultimate Adventures Foundation, the result of years of networking and efforts to raise sponsorship. The new tower will help generate funds for the reserve as each tourist contributes by paying a fee to view the bats. It stands close to the BBC viewing tower and is testimony to the passion Simon and Des share for conservation.
We were sad to leave the beauty of this reserve. The trip home allowed us time to digest the spectacles we had witnessed. Our experience of the drive through Lusaka, our overnight stop at Tiffany’s Canyon, and then the magnificent Camp Nkwazi back in Livingstone were a wonderful way to round off a very memorable trip. Des organised for our Covid-19 tests to be done in the comfort of our campsite at Camp Nkwazi at a greatly reduced price, with the doctor arriving on site to save us going to a clinic in town. The final bridge crossing required an unexpected toll fee of 50 kwacha, which was a lesson to many on the tour that you should always carry some local currency when making the final exit from a country.
Our final goodbyes were said after a wonderful evening at the famous Elephant Sands Camp in Botswana. We celebrated in style with a five-star meal prepared by Master P, as the elephants wandered past in search of the sweet water in the camp dam. Each one of us will treasure the people, the places and our wonderful hosts who make up the memories of this tour.
Useful Zambian travel tips
The weather: It is essential to plan your trip to Zambia around the weather patterns as many areas are flooded during the rainy season (November to April). The Liuwa Plain National Park is completely under water during the rainy season, as are many other areas of Zambia and Botswana.
Water: It is an essential to carry fresh water as local water is not potable in most areas of Zambia.
Currency: The currency is the Zambian kwacha (the exchange rate averages around ZAR1 to ZK1.25). We drew from the ATM at the border post. Livingstone was a good place to draw cash. Be aware that very often the ATM machines are empty.
Airtime: We purchased our airtime from a street vendor in Livingstone. After some research, we found AIRTEL to be the most reliable service provider with good coverage. Other service options are available.
Shopping: Well-stocked Shoprite chain stores are found in all big city centres. Most have card machines so cash is not required for grocery purchases.
Fuel: Most fuel stations do NOT have card machines, so cash is an essential. Make sure you have an estimated fuel cost and draw enough cash for your fuel. Distances are vast so your trip planning must take into account that some fuel stations may not have any supply. Jerry cans are advised for those vehicles with smaller tanks.
Tolls: The majority of routes have a number of toll stations, each charging a fee of 20 kwacha once the driver has produced the correct documentation that had been processed at the border crossing. This exercise is simple if you keep the required pages in a folder close at hand, along with all previous receipts. It is not advisable to photograph any government building or person. This includes toll stations and their officials.
Checkpoints: The checkpoints mostly waved us through, but some asked for passports. Other police-staffed points checked vehicle papers, details and warning triangles to ensure that everyone was compliant with government regulations. Driving after dark is not advisable due to wandering animals and the poor quality of the roads.
Health: Being proactive in the prevention of mosquito bites is also important to prevent malaria and a full course of prophylaxis is essential for visitors. Mosquitos settle in the footwells of vehicles and floors of trailers overnight, emerging as a cloud in the morning. We carried cans of Doom to spray the footwells and any other potential hidey holes each night before retiring.
This saved a lot of ankle bites in the morning. Mosquito body spray and bracelets, along with long sleeves and long pants at dusk and dawn assist in preventing bites. Tsetse fly are still abundant in Kasanka, and even though they no longer carry sleeping sickness they still deliver a painful bite. To avoid them, it is advised to keep vehicle windows closed while travelling.