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Zambia: An Untouched Land

I stare intently at the gas gauge while trying to drive with the least possible amount of throttle. I’m in Sixth gear only moving at 30 mph, trying to keep the revs as low as I can to stretch every single mile from what little gas remains.

After 15 miles I’m not really surprised to find the dusty town does not have a gas station—rural Zambia is not a densely populated place, after all. With little choice, I roll on toward almost certain failure.

A handful of miles later, the engine dies. There is no coughing or spluttering, no indications that anything is amiss. It simply dies without fanfare.

“For all my careful planning and preparation, running out of gas is not such a big deal.”

Manhandling the 6,000-pound Jeep onto the shoulder without power steering is not easy, and it eventually comes to rest less than 200 yards from a police roadblock.

As I walk toward the police, I try not to think about any gunk that may have been sucked into the fuel pump.

Zambia Quick Facts

Capital City: Lusaka
Population: 17 million
Size: 290,587 square miles (bigger than Texas)
Official Language: English
Currency: Zambian kwacha
Independence from England: Oct. 24, 1964

Cartoon map of Zambia

Into Zambia

After driving over the bridge at mighty Victoria Falls, we’re stamped out of Zimbabwe in 5 minutes. We purchased a visa for ourselves and entrance stamp from immigration, and then I begin the process at customs to temporarily import the Jeep. I soon learn Zambia is one of those countries that makes the process as convoluted and complicated as possible. I’m clutching copies of multiple documents as I wander down corridors to obtain stamps and receipts from senior officers, without ever fully understanding why. In true African fashion, I must pay an official fee in U.S. dollars—which I don’t have—and then another fee to the same officer in local Zambian kwacha.

I remind myself it’s not supposed to make sense.

The majority of East African countries share a third-party motor vehicle insurance system called Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Yellow Card. Once I buy COMESA, the Jeep will be legally covered all the way to Egypt, and it is something I have been meaning to do for a while. After a lot of back and forth, I buy 10 months of Zambian insurance, and then add 10 months of COMESA. The friendly guy at the border explains this is the only way it can be done, so for about $70 USD the Jeep is now legal and all future borders should be straightforward.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Jeep traveling down dirt road in Zambia

Petrol Drain

We explore the entire northern area of the country, simply going wherever we think looks interesting on the map. The days are warm and sunny while nights are cold enough to require a campfire. On a whim, we drive deeper into the wilderness and discover a beautiful lake where we camp for the night. We’re told no crocodiles or hippos reside here, though the quick temperature drop when the sun goes down dissuades me from a swim. In the morning, I decide it’s better to go forward rather than back. As long as the first town on the map has a functioning gas station, we should be fine.

When the Jeep inevitably dies, the police at the nearby roadblock are very curious, and want to know why I have stopped so close to them. They immediately enlist the help of the next passing car, and I’m soon in the back seat with a friendly local family.

In the small town nearby, I ask around before a friendly man fetches a jerrican I can use. At the gas station, I’m told it is illegal to fill plastic containers, so a friendly taxi driver offers to help. We put the plastic container in his trunk where it can’t easily be seen, and then pump a couple of gallons into the jerrican. For a couple of dollars, the taxi driver runs me back to the Jeep. After pouring the gas into the tank, it fires up with no hesitation at all. Apparently, no gunk was sucked into the fuel pump after all.

The tank is officially 22.5 gallons, and at the next station I get just over 19 gallons in before it overflows. Some napkin math tells me there was somewhere around half a gallon in the tank when it ran out—the fuel pickup apparently can’t suck up that last little bit. All told, this screwup has cost less than two hours. For all my careful planning and preparation, running out of gas is not such a big deal.

Filling the Jeep with gas using a jerrican

After pouring the gas into the tank, it fires up with no hesitation at all. Apparently, no gunk was sucked into the fuel pump after all.

Ferry travel in Zambia

What they called a ferry was really a bunch of steel drums lashed together forming a platform not much bigger than the Jeep.

Ferry travel in Zambia

This floating contraption had no motor so two men pulled it across the river using a steel cable strung between two huge trees.

Land of Waterfalls

I top off our drinking water tank and we’re soon back on the road, arriving at Kundalila Falls just at sunset. The entrance price also includes camping, so after a quick look at the falls from above, we light a campfire and once again attempt to take in the awe-inspiring display of stars. Spotting the Southern Cross still puts a smile on my face after all these many months. Somehow it makes everything feel like my home Down Under, in reality very far away. In the morning we hike to the bottom of the canyon to see the falls from below, and it feels great to stretch our legs and get some exercise.

Always excited for natural hot water, I pull into Kapishya Hot Springs full of expectation. Camping is right on the stunning river, and only a two-minute walk away lies a perfect hot spring. The soaking pool is plenty big enough for a genuine swim and is the perfect temperature. Of course, we stay an extra night, soaking every morning, midday, and night.

The northern region of Zambia is littered with massive waterfalls, and a record rainy season has recently ended. We set out to explore, visiting multiple stunning sights over a handful of days. Almost all the waterfalls have a hydro setup on site, and the entrance fee includes camping—absolutely perfect for us. At each fall we camp within a stone’s throw of the raging water and are free to swim and explore to our heart’s content. The fast-flowing water ensures there are no crocs or hippos lurking. At least that’s what we’re told.

The highlight comes at Lumangwe Waterfall, possibly the most stunning waterfall I have seen in my life. We set up camp less than 50 yards from the edge and eventually light a fire less than 20 yards from the edge. The photo opportunities at the top are breathtaking, and I repeatedly get closer than makes sense. I take the “swimming at own risk” sign as a challenge and enjoy a refreshing dip right on the edge of the raging whitewater.

Kundalila Falls in Zambia

Kundalila Falls.

Lumangwe Waterfall in Zambia

The northern region of Zambia is littered with massive waterfalls, and a record rainy season has recently ended. This is Lumangwe Waterfall.

Splitting Luangwa National Parks

In the northeast of the country we make our usual midday stop in a typical rural Zambian town to re-supply. I thoroughly enjoy walking around these small towns, so I park near the center and then we wander on foot, searching for everything we need. It’s not difficult to locate fresh eggs, bread, vegetables, and even a large watermelon and a pineapple. For lunch we get a heaping plate of fried chicken and the local mealie-meal dish, called nsima, all for $1. Mealie-meal is the staple dish of Southern and East Africa, and is made from corn flour and water that is cooked to a consistency that approximates firm mashed potatoes. The nsima itself does not really have any flavor, though it always comes with a delicious spicy dipping sauce to make it interesting.

I also load up on gas and fill the water tank, so we’re all set for another week in the wild. The GPS shows a small track splitting the two monster national parks in the country, North and South Luangwa. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to drive through, especially with a very large river near the end. In my usual fashion, I decide it will be an adventure either way, and we will simply turn around if it turns out to be absolutely impossible.

Turning off the main road, a very large sign for the track announces it is “Strictly 4×4,” so I know we’re onto a good thing. The first 60 miles are good gravel, with the only incident being a snake on the road that looks so much like a stick I have to reverse to confirm that it’s probably a twig snake.

The lone village on the track has a checkpoint at a boom gate blocking the way. The men are very friendly and happy to talk about the road ahead, though they seem to think it’s impossible to drive through. There is a major river crossing, they say, and they don’t know if anyone has driven that way since the rains ended recently. Not to worry, the men say, we can just come back this way.

Zambian Elephants

Zambia showed more wildlife than anywhere else on the continent, even outside the national park.

Immediately I have the Jeep in low range First, and over the next five miles the road drops a few thousand feet to the valley bottom, providing breathtaking views out over the dry grassland that makes up the two national parks. Dusk comes and goes and so we find a small clearing on the side of the deserted track to make camp. I’m not worried about anyone coming along; we have not seen a single vehicle. Nights in Zambia have been surprisingly frigid, and so we enjoy a small campfire while taking in the stunning night sky, all alone in the utter silence.

We’re on the move at dawn, and in less than 20 minutes the Jeep is overrun with tsetse flies. These massive flies bite aggressively and leave a painful welt. Soon my arms and legs are covered from top to bottom. Aside from the annoyance, tsetse flies carry a serious disease called sleeping sickness, something I very much hope to avoid. Soon we put the windows up and continue to the sounds of thousands of flies hitting the outside of the Jeep, which sounds very much like heavy rainfall. During the day it becomes extremely difficult even to stop for a bathroom break because the swarms are so aggressive.

The track ranges from Second gear dirt and gravel down to low-range First 4×4 sandy riverbeds. Thankfully there is no water to speak of, so nothing presents a problem for the Rubicon. In multiple places we see elephant, lion, and other big tracks on the road, though the animals remain hidden from view.

In the early afternoon, we reach another small village where we must register in a huge ledger as it is an anti-poaching checkpoint. Here the armed men explain the road with the massive river crossing has been closed for many months. It’s absolutely impossible to go that way, so we should just continue on. They assure us there is in fact a ferry to cross the river and that we should be fine. I have a good look through the ledger and notice no vehicle has passed here in the last five days.

A few hours later, we drive through a series of small grass fires on the roadside before we catch up to an anti-poaching patrol, a group of five heavily armed men patrolling on foot. They explain they are burning the long grass to make it easier to see people and tire tracks leaving the road, and also to deter the animals from hanging around so close to the road where they may be poached. The men are on foot in the sweltering heat and tsetse flies, though they don’t seem to mind in the least; each and every one grins and waves.

Hippo crossing the road

Hippos and crocs gather at the river. Even though anti-poaching patrols try to keep them off the road, they still wander about.

After many more hours, we reach the shores of the mighty Luangwa River. It is wide, fast-flowing, and clearly thick with hippos and crocs. Not sure how to proceed, I follow the river to the south until I spot a telltale cable across the river. I assume this must be the ferry. Upon closer inspection, I realize what we have found is just a bunch of steel drums lashed together forming a platform not much bigger than the Jeep. The men who walk over from the shade assure me it’s up to the task, though I’m still not sure as I ease the Jeep down and onto the ferry in low-range Second. The ferry leans under the weight, though once all four tires are centered, it levels out and seems relatively sturdy. I’m very careful to leave the Jeep in gear and pull the hand break with two hands.

This floating contraption has no motor, so two men get to work pulling it across the river, using the steel cable strung between two huge trees. With the weight of the Jeep, the whole thing is sitting very low in the fast-flowing river. I’m more than a little nervous about the whole enterprise. The guys heave and in less than 10 minutes we’re across, where I drive onto a makeshift platform of sticks and logs before driving up and onto the sand. This is by far the smallest and sketchiest ferry I have dared to put the Jeep on, and I’m relieved the whole thing has gone off without a hitch.

Now on the correct side of the mighty river, we continue to follow it south, pushing on into the late afternoon. Just a few miles from our destination we encounter a local minibus helplessly stuck to its frame in a large sandy riverbed. The 20 or so passengers are standing around looking glum while a solitary man shovels in the deep, soft sand.

I swing the Jeep around, and everyone lights up when they realize my plan. Soon I have my tow strap attached and I’m in low-range First. With a lot of wheelspin, the Jeep hauls the minibus through the sand, dragging it on its belly the entire width of the dry riverbed. After a huge round of handshakes and smiles we pull onto a paved highway just after the sun hits the horizon.

Local Zambian man

Local Zambian man riding his bike after picking up supplies.

 

South Luangwa National Park

Each morning, we rise well before sunrise for a game drive into the park, and after lazing around during the heat of the day we’re back out at dusk to see more critters. Even before we enter the park, we see an enormous amount of wildlife—more, in fact, than we have seen anywhere else on the continent.

“… it’s unheard of for a lion to attack a group of people, though I still feel an enormous adrenaline rush …”

A highlight comes in the form of a walking tour, where we go on foot into the national park. From ground level we see zebra, giraffe, elephant, and even a lone lioness. She stares intently at us from only 50 yards away—though the guide assures us we’re in no danger. He explains it’s unheard of for a lion to attack a group of people, though I still feel an enormous primal adrenaline rush to be so close to an alpha predator on foot.

Zambian hiking guide

The author’s hiking guide while visiting the South Luangwa National Park.

An Untouched Land

From stunning landscapes to rivers, waterfalls, wildlife, and extremely friendly and content locals, Zambia has a lot to offer. There are thousands of miles of gravel tracks to explore, and it’s virtually unheard of to cross paths with another 4×4.

Zambia manages to capture the spirit of exploration in remote Africa. How remote you want to get in this stunning land is entirely up to you.

You can follow Dan Grec’s adventures online @TheRoadChoseMe across social media and at theroadchoseme.com.

Zambian lion

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Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine

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