- Day 1: THE WATERFALL SAFARI BEGINS
- Day 2: SPY HUNTER
- Day 3: THE REAL AFRICA
- Day 4: THE GREAT DUSTY ESCAPE
- Day 5: PARADISE ALMOST LOST
- Day 6: ZAMBIA’S OTHER BORDER WATERFALL
- Day 7: THE RACE FOR A MUTINONDO SUNSET
- Day 8: THE HOOPTIE BACK TO LUSAKA
Day 1: THE WATERFALL SAFARI BEGINS
Today began with an early departure of about 5:30am. Considering we had a rather long day of flying from Livingstone to Lusaka then driving to Forest Inn, which was about 3.5 hours away from Lusaka, there was no rest for the weary.
Still, we were used to Australian time so waking up early wasn’t a big deal to us. And so our driver, Chester, drove off in the 1988 Pajero (completely cracked windshield and smell of diesel from the 120L stored above the car and all) in the dark and continued east.
Quite a bit was on our minds from yesterday apart from our waterfalling safari. We were worried about forgetting our Yellow-Fever Certificate at home and wondering whether we’d have to get pricked again when we get to Tanzania when HIV/AIDS is still a big problem. Another worry was our itinerary having us stay farther away from Forest Inn (at Mutinondo Lodge) on the morning we depart from Lusaka to Nairobi to Kilimanjaro at 11am! Julie and I aren’t sure why Nickson (the boss or bwana at Zambia Safari Company) did this, but his insistence that it’s only 50km east of Forest Inn somehow doesn’t add up.
Anyways, back to the trip…
The waterfall safari we had booked with Zambian Safari Company (we’ll use ZamSaf from now on) was supposed to include Kundalila Falls, Mumbuluma Falls, Musonda Falls, Mambilima Falls, Ntumbachushi Falls, Lumangwe Falls, Kabwelume Falls, Kundabwika Falls, Chishimba Falls, Kalambo Falls, and Chusa Falls. The itinerary was called 10 waterfalls in 10 days, but that itinerary stated 11. I guess the more the merrier, right?
Anyways knowing how long distance driving can induce sleep on drivers, I sat with Chester in the front seat trying to keep him awake and to learn a bit more about Zambia as well as the native languages here. I learned a few words in Nyanja at Victoria Falls, but now Chester was telling me Bemba is more commonly used up in the north where we’re going.
Unfortunately, his english was quite limited and I spent months learning Swahili (not Bemba nor Nyanja) so it was a little difficult to try to learn all that we wanted to learn about Zambia and its peoples in the time we’re spending in the car.
So our knowledge of Zambia pretty much came down to what we have already read in Lonely Planet and Chester pretty much confirmed or refuted yes/no type questions we’ve asked.
After nearly two hours on the Great North Road, we drove a short 14km high-clearance-type unsealed road, which was pretty straight shot for most of the way. The road was flanked by low-lying trees and some classic African shrubs.
The was a little sandy in places, and it made me wonder whether a 2wd passenger car might get stuck in some of those spots. But the road itself seemed to be pretty packed even where there was sand so perhaps it would’ve been a non-issue (not that I would know since I wouldn’t consider driving here).
In any case, we ended up at the car park for Kundalila Falls by 8am. We used a little toilet facility there that seemed to be a lot more gross than just peeing in the bush. It was like a room after a confined spiral passage where you just peed freely onto the room itself, which I recalled also had a hole on the ground. But there was no movement of air there, and so flies were everywhere and the stence of urine and poop was oh so strong.
We met the local guide who took Chester, Julie, and I on a rather unsigned but fairly easy-to-follow trail. We first were led towards a view of the top of the falls, which was a little on the precarious side given the presence of dropoffs. Plus, the route we took to get here didn’t appear to be official.
The view from the top already gave us a tantalizing look at how much more we might be able to see from the bottom. The lacy, rivuleted 20-30m cascade twists and tumbles to a forested area below. We could feel the spray from up here, but that didn’t stop us from taking photos here before backtracking to the main trail then continuing to the bottom.
Along the way to the bottom, we could get scenic views of a surprisingly rocky land dotted with shrubs. We couldn’t celebrate the views for too long because that was when the trail steeply descended around a hill and towards the slippery base of the falls.
During the descent, the local guide with Chester translating told us that the falls got its name from “kunda” meaning “dove” in Bemba and “lila” meaning “crying”. So we have “crying dove” falls, which was based on now-extinct doves that used to live here, but white prospectors killed them off thinking there’s gold in their gizzards. The doves were thought to have eaten anything including gold dust. It turned out the prospectors weren’t successful anyways and the extinction of the doves were all they had to show for it.
By 9:15am, we made it back to the car park after huffing and puffing on the ascent. 15 minutes later, we left the National Monument site and continued on to our accommodation for the day.
So the next several hours were spent going back on the Great North Road, then heading north from the village of Serenje. From that point, the road degenerated into a series of potholes and overgrown shoulders. There was Kasanka National Park along the way, but we weren’t after wildlife on this safari and passed on that.
We did pass through a scenic swampland area bisected by a bridge that apparently the Chinese helped to build. This Chinese-Zambian cooperation wasn’t the first instance we’ve seen so far. Yesterday, we saw some Chinese mining operations on the way to Kapiri-Mposhi on the outskirts of the Copperbelt Province just before we veered east to Forest Inn.
Chester seems proud and grateful for the Chinese for their building up the Zambian infrastructure. Though Julie and I suspect the Chinese are probably trying to mine for copper while providing some much needed infrastructure to the country in return. I understand the Chinese are trying to do the same in DR Congo.
Anyways, we continued dodging pothole after pothole on the way to Lake Bangweulu. A few potholes were actually big enough to seemingly swallow the bumper of 2wd vehicles. I’m not sure we had seen sealed roads this bad in all of our travels, and we started to wonder if this is typical of the rest of the country.
Chester seemed to have attacked these potholes at almost full speed in his attempt at dodging them. However, he missed some of the potholes and that jolted the Pajero tremendously. At one point, the rack holding the 6 20L containers of diesel above the car came loose as one clamps came off.
Anyways, by 2pm, after Chester asked for some directions near Lake Bangweulu (which struck us as rather strange when your guide is asking for directions), we ended up at the Samfya Sun & Beach Hotel.
Situated right on the shores of Lake Bangweulu, we expected a swampy lake. But instead, we got a sandy beach with traditional African huts. Although the waters looked very inviting and a break from the rather heat and humidity of the day, we had read there were crocodiles in the water and decided to pass on a dip.
Nonetheless, it was a rather pleasant surprise, and our relatively early arrival allowed us to spend the rest of the afternoon peacefully. We even had time to watch the movie “The Insider” by Michael Mann.
Of course, we immediately knew we were in Africa when the generator power suddenly went out and we ended up having fresh fish and chicken over rice lit by only candlelight. Flashlights were necessary to get around in our spacious room.
Day 2: SPY HUNTER
It was 6am when we awoke. The electricity went out again. During that time, I tried to photograph a sunrise over the lake, but with clouds, there was no such sunrise. There were early morning fishers out on the lake already though.
By about 7:55am, we left Samfya. During breakfast, we met a guy trying to prevent child labor through education. He was a Global Vision guy who arrived in one of the new SUVs that made our safari vehicle look like a dinosaur.
It seemed like the Global Vision cause was quite inspiring and noble. After all, it seemed that Zambians in rural areas put their children to work instead of bettering themselves through education. Global Vision sought to keep the children in schools to get better educated and not fall into a cycle of child labor and lack of education. A better future perhaps?
I was immediately reminded of the old video game “Spy Hunter.” But instead of dodging oil slicks and bombs, we were dodging potholes as well as pedestrians and bicyclists.
By 9am, we arrived at the town of Mansa. I wasn’t sure what kind of business needed to be done, but the Zambian Safari Company had an office here and we seemed to have spent quite a deal of time here.
It was here that we learned that ZamSaf was extensively involved in bus services throughout Northern Zambia. That kind of made us wonder whether ZamSaf Safaris were their core business or not given the relatively unpolished product we’ve seen so far.
Julie took this opportunity to use the scarcely-available internet (albeit a rather slow connection) to try to secure our forgotten Yellow Fever Certificate for the East Africa leg of our long trip after this Zambian Safari. We also paid some bills as well.
Meanwhile, Chester and a few Zambian Safari (ZamSaf) guys were fixing something regarding the steering of the car. I wonder if that was induced by Chester hitting a few of the potholes at full speed.
As that was being cared for, I spent time with Bennet (the apparent “head” of the area as far as ZamSaf was concerned), who took me for a walk around town trying to help Chester find a particular nut. Julie stayed behind.
Bennet seemed to have some kind of speech impediment, but I later learned that he had suffered a stroke not that long ago. The guy seemed very young, and it seemed very unusual that such a young guy could have such an affliction.
Anyways, as I walked with Bennet, I got a lot of stares from the locals. Apparently, I was the only non-black (let alone Asian) in town. It felt rather awkward being the center of attention from strangers. I just tried to put on a smile and say “Muli shani” whenever I could.
Bennet told me that Mansa appeared to be built up by some Lusaka businessman who owns some 80 buses. I guess that explains why buses stop here. Why Mansa, though? Who knows?
Finally at 10:50am, we left Mansa and finally continued our waterfall hunt. We were supposed to see four waterfalls today. But with our late start, I’m not sure how many of them we’ll see.
Delays seemed to be the order of the day as Chester had to spend more time securing that troublesome loose rack holding the petrol above the car. Then, Chester got briefly lost before asking for directions and finally getting us on our way.
Experiencing this falls was a rather awkward experience as we were joined by a local guide and a whole group of kids. No one spoke english so we spent the next several minutes seeing both the upper and lower falls while all the locals were staring at us the whole time. In other words, hardly any dialog.
By 12:50pm, we were back in the car. The next waterfall was supposed to be Musonda Falls.
Sure enough, after trying to deny the whole village from selling us stuff through the car window (if you didn’t learn how to say “no” at this point, you will after this), we were joined by an armed guard who was going to take us on a brief tour of the falls.
As expected, the hydro plant robbed the falls of much water, but there’s still a decent amount of water going over the falls itself. However, the view was disappointing because the gate for the bridge across the canal was closed. The canal itself was some 5m deep.
Despite the crappy views of the falls, the silver lining was that this hydro plant supplies power all the way back to Mansa as well as the local communities.
Next waterfall was supposed to be Mambilima Falls. It was funny watching Chester asking the locals where the falls is. Isn’t he supposed to be the driver and guide?
Anyways at 2:15pm, after a rather brutal detour to what looked like someone’s property, we guided ourselves and walked in amongst the heat and humidity and went to what looked like a bunch of rapids. This wasn’t a waterfall in our book. I didn’t even bother taking many photos of it.
At 2:40pm, we headed out. Chester intended for us to visit some local chief, but as the skies were getting darker, it seemed like we weren’t going to see that (not that we were that interested in it) nor were we going to see Ntumbachushi Falls, which was supposed to be the fourth of the day.
Julie and I were beginning to wonder whether this 10 Waterfalls in 10 Days Safari by the Zambian Safari Company was a scam. After all, the last two waterfalls we saw were duds and Mumbuluma Falls wasn’t exactly a barnburner.
By 3:55pm, we decided to bypass all remaining excursions and head straight for the next accommodation. Perhaps Ntumbachushi Falls could be done tomorrow. In any case, we didn’t want to be on the road in the dark with all those potholes lying around.
By 5pm, we finally arrived at the Lusenga Trust in the humble town of Kawambwa.
The first order of business was to try to correct the end of our itinerary. It had us leaving from Mutinondo Wilderness Lodge and trying to catch an international flight that very morning!
After seeing all the potholes on the roads and how long it took just to go to even get to the Forest Inn from Lusaka, we weren’t going to take any chances leaving the itinerary as is despite what Nickson booked for us initially. Besides, Chester even knew a Mutinondo departure on the day we leave was now a pipe dream.
So after consulting the Zambia road map and using Chester’s cell phone to call Nickson at the Lusaka office, we finally got the accommodations squared away. We agreed to sacrifice Chusa Falls (I guess waterfall 10) in the itinerary to make this happen. That also meant bypassing the Kapishya Hot Springs. So we’d be staying at Mutinondo Wilderness Lodge the night of Day 8 and in downtown Lusaka on the night of Day 9 so we wouldn’t be in a hurry to catch our flight to Tanzania at 11am on Day 10.
After seeing the 2 duds today, we weren’t going to waste time on anything small so when Chester said Chusa Falls were small, that was all we needed to hear to axe it from the itinerary.
Finally at 6pm, we got settled. Unfortunately, electricity was sparse here. When electricity did come back on (it was generator powered), there was no hot water. There was also no trash and no refrigerator as well as a rather poorly positioned mosquito net over the bed. On top of that, the next door guest had a baby crying nonstop, and a dog was barking somewhere not far away in town. And, there was blaring reggae music (both Zambian and Bob Marley as well as others) from some shop across the street.
At this point in the trip, the disappointment of yesterday’s falls and the actual prices of the food and accommodations on the trip so far made me wonder whether we were getting ripped off.
Needless to say, our morale was low at this point. Yet the silver lining was that things could only get better from here, right? Besides, I reckon you can’t experience the highs until you understand what the lows are.
So I guess this is the REAL Africa! And according to our itinerary, we’ll have to spend tomorrow night here as well!
Day 3: THE REAL AFRICA
It’s 7am. The hits kept coming.
As we were having breakfast, Chester showed up early and told us that he had a flat tire. I guess running over all those potholes at full speed not only blew the steering and the rack, but also the tire as well!
Julie was now expressing (as opposed to venting to me) her reservations and frustrations at using an old vehicle for a safari such as this. But there wasn’t a whole lot we could do now.
At least we noticed that Chester took the petrol off the roof of the Pajero. So the car won’t smell like petrol as we’re sitting in it, at least. Who knows how much petrol sniffing we subjected ourselves to the last two days..
So right off the bat, we had to wait for Chester to get the problem fixed. He was accompanied by another guy who was well-dressed and was going to be our guide for today. His name was Joseph. They both set off and Julie and I were left at the Lusenga Trust trying to pass the time reading.
I had a feeling this would take a while.
Finally at 9:45am, Chester and Joseph showed up and we were finally on our way to continue waterfalling.
So the story was that the rear left tire was essentially slashed from both old age and potholes. It took them a while to find a replacement. That’s because Kawambwa was remote and there aren’t a whole lot of spare parts dealers and mechanics there. It turned out that they were offered fake tires by one of the mechanics before a wary Joseph got Chester to find someone (it turned out to be the owner of the Musonda Lodge across the street) who sold his spare tire.
Anyways, during the drive to our waterfalls for today, Joseph told us he was the local guide and conservationist for Ntumbachushi Falls – the one we missed yesterday. He’s hoping we can do that one tomorrow morning. He was quick to mention that the falls we’re doing today have crocodiles so we can’t swim. But you can swim Ntumbachushi.
The conversation with Joseph was rather interesting. He seemed to know quite a bit about the state of tourism in Northern Zambia. In fact, this is one part of the country where they (the government) verbally said they really want to promote tourism. I got the feeling that we were one of the brave people to actually give it a shot before some serious infrastructure was going to be invested.
He said there are dignitaries coming later in the year to visit the area to try to get more money spent here on infrastructure.
We also learned that the Lusenga National Park nearby is trying to repopulate and stock big game animals with excess stocks from more successful reserves like the Luangwa National Parks and Lower Zambezi. Of course, poaching is a big problem and somehow they need to employ the poor villagers in order to stop them from finding less agreeable means of earning a living (or even surviving, apparently).
By 10:55am, we finally got to a point where we crossed the Kalungwishi River. Joseph said there are five waterfalls on this river. Kalungwishi Falls is what all waterfalls are collectively called, but each major tier has a name. But like he mentioned earlier, there are crocodiles and hippos in the river.
After crossing the bridge, apparently the signposts for the falls went missing. Joseph suspected locals destroyed the sign to make things they need like pottery or whatever. This was giving both Joseph and Chester trouble as they both asked for directions on where to get to Chipempe Falls.
Eventually, Chester and Joseph took a road that quickly became more like a footpath. It looks nothing like a road suitable for any vehicle. Eventually, this degenerated into just driving through tall grass! My thoughts were whether we’d get out of this with all tires intact!
By 11:30am, we finally stopped the car at some spot Joseph told Chester to stop at. We scrambled around all the while hearing some loud rushing water sounds. It wasn’t long before we caught partial and unsatisfactory views of the top of Chipempe Falls.
Joseph said the falls was named after the Chipempe Church because of missionaries that came here and set up camp by the falls.
As we left Chipempe Falls, Chester and Joseph tried to continue on some “shortcut” that links up with the road to Lumangwe Falls, which itself has a signpost and legitimate road. Unfortunately, it seemed like we were still driving through footpaths or non-existent paths. I could just hear Chester’s Pajero suffering from all this off-roading.
After all the offroading, the road to Lumangwe Falls was a good sign.
During the rather dramatic drive where the road was riddled with ruts and water channels deep enough to turn the Pajero over, Joseph got out of his car and walked in front of the car to try to guide Chester. I got to hand it to Joseph for getting out in the heat in his trenchcoat and dress shoes and getting down and dirty to see our safari through.
Mercifully by 1:35pm, we were at the car park for Kabwelume Falls.
Chanda mentioned that Kabwelume Falls and Lumangwe Falls were related to some kind of spiritual snake in which both falls were opposite ends of that snake. The locals believed that Kabwelume Falls was forbidden and that photos of the falls taken wouldn’t come out or some other calamity that kept from the falls being known to the outside world.
Chanda also said that the falls were recently released for hydroelectric plans further downstream. It’s still in proposal now, but he assured that the falls would stay intact after the proposal was seen through…
It was only a 300m walk to the falls, but it involved a rather deep stream crossing that was tough to do without getting your feet wet. Nonetheless, Julie managed. I had on Gore-tex boots so I didn’t mind getting wet as much.
As we continued onwards towards the falls past the stream crossing, Chester startled all of us when he mentioned he couldn’t find his keys!
So immediately, Chester turned back alone while Chanda, Joseph, Julie, and I continued onwards to the falls. With the thought of being stranded out here on our minds, it was hard to be in the moment even as the falls was roaring and it became apparent to us that this was more than just another one of the dud waterfalls we had seen up to this point (with the exception of Lumangwe).
Like Lumangwe Falls, it wasn’t very tall (maybe 15m or so), but it was very wide and segmented in such a way that it had multiple steps on the right-hand side and direct drops on the left-hand side with a couple of other falls with different characteristics in between. Perhaps it was 4-5 different waterfalls all coming down at once. It’s hard to describe in words, but Julie and I hadn’t seen a waterfall quite like this one.
In fact, this waterfall changed our opinion that staying in Kawambwa was a waste of time.
Even with the wide angle on my camera, I couldn’t get the whole scene here. It needs to be stitched. Joseph and Chanda went all the way to the grassy area which was drenched in mist. I stayed behind trying to photograph the scene and avoid the mist.
Not long afterwards, Chester rejoined us with news that he found his keys! What’s more, he found his keys in that stream we had crossed!
I was worried that maybe Chanda’s story about bad spirits keeping the falls from being seen by the outside world might be coming to fruition.
And so we spent a few minutes more trying to capture the intensely picturesque scene before returning back to the car.
By 2:15pm, we were back at the dusty car.
Chanda said Kundabwika Falls was another 60km on very bad road from here so we couldn’t do it today and probably not on this trip at all. Scratch that from the itinerary! Joseph was saying you need a full day just to do that one. Perhaps 30km/s top speed to even get there, but it was only 5km one-way as the crow flies.
As we were headed out back to the main road, the mood in the car changed from that of concern to that of how to make this attraction more accessible.
After all, if you have crappy infrastructure, no one will come here.
And so we were involved in a rather interesting and enlightening discussion on how to involve local villagers in conservation in such a way that it’s not necessary to poach for bushmeat or for quick money. It’s not easy, but it’s clear the locals have to have a reason to conserve and the government has to get with the program.
Unfortunately, Northern Zambia seems to get the short end of the stick as evidenced by the crummy roads and the neglect of the parks and lack of marketing here.
It seems locals here don’t quite buy the government’s insistence that this part of the country will get more money to prop up tourism. They say they’ve been hearing this for a while but haven’t seen the goods.
Anyways, all this talk about parks and tourism as a viable industry for locals here was very educational for us. It got us to think about tourism in ways we never would have thought of as merely visitors soaking up the experience. Obviously, lots of thought, resources, and planning must go into an operational and successful tourist attraction. And we’re right here at the forefront of it in the forgotten corners of Zambia.
After dropping Chanda off at the park gate, we were all merrily continuing on our way back to Kawambwa thinking that maybe all this trouble to be here was all worth it and we’ve got more good waterfalls to go on this trip…
That was when our fortunes changed…
At first, we thought Chester blew another tire.
But when we all left the car, the severity of the situation became immediately known…
Now, we’re stuck.
Just when I thought we managed to escape that snake spirit Chanda warned about, it got us!
Chester was convinced this wasn’t that big of a deal and left his stuff in the car. Joseph, Julie, and I weren’t so sure as there was no cell phone coverage, no readily-available transport, and no bush mechanic in sight. So we got all of our stuff sitting in the Pajero and started walking. At least the rest of our stuff was back at Kawambwa so we didn’t have to carry ALL of our bags!
We were still on the Lumangwe Falls road, but we weren’t exactly sure how far away from the “main road” (the Kawambwa-Mporokoso Road) we were. In any case, we had to walk to at least the nearest village, which we weren’t exactly sure where that was either!
We managed to pass by some locals with a little shack and crops. That person loaned Chester his bike so he could quickly go back to the main road and find some help.
Meanwhile, Joseph, Julie, and I continued walking on foot carrying our gear.
The local said we were only 2km from the main road, but after an hour or so, it was clear we had walked farther than that!
Well at least we were back on the dusty main road back at around 4:15pm. I could see there was a signpost for Lumangwe Falls. I only wished that we took this road into the falls instead of that crazy shortcut to Chipempe Falls.
Anyways, it was around 5:05pm when we made it to Kalungwishi Bridge and the local village nearby.
There was some major commotion going on over there as seemingly hundreds of people were walking our way. At first I thought it was because school was out.
But after Joseph talked with some of the villagers, he explained to us that the villagers caught someone who kidnaps people and steals peoples hearts.
At first Julie and I thought it was an organ thief, but then we realized that maybe they do have witchdoctors or shamans out in these parts. Pretty scary stuff.
Anyways, Chester wasn’t here and all we could do at this point was to sit and wait at this village (which I think is called Mukuma Village).
We ended up staying at Chanda’s home where his wife and kids were keeping us entertained. Eventually, Chester showed up and then Chanda showed up when it got dark. Still, we were in a bind as there was no network coverage here and no one had a car.
It was a good thing Chanda showed up because he got a local to watch Chester’s stuff in his broken down car against poachers. He also got someone to give Chester a ride on his little motorbike to Kawambwa to get in touch with someone with an SUV in town to pick us up. There is cell phone coverage in Kawambwa so that was the immediate goal.
So with all this stuff going on, all we could now do was sit and anxiously wait. We weren’t sure if we had to spend the night in the village…
As the sun went down, Chanda’s wife was very gracious in letting us in her house while providing us with tea and bread. She even used their precious petrol to power up the generator to turn on the television, DVD player, and satellite TV.
It was a bit too much considering how few possessions they had. Yet they were very generous and concerned for our well-being.
I had heard that Zambians by and large were friendly people, but it’s times like this when you see the true color of people, and perhaps in this case such a generalization was in fact true.
Julie was concerned the whole way through and I had to admit it was tough to get in the moment and into the Congolese music or watching K’millian videos with all the uncertainty surrounding us.
Joseph tried to console Julie’s fears by telling her that we’re the only Mzungu’s (non-blacks) in the area so everyone knows we’re here and we will be found. Things will work themselves out. He continued that ZamSaf (our tour company) invested a lot in transportation in the otherwise forgotten Northern Zambia. So he’s sure someone will help because of what ZamSaf means to the area.
Finally at 10:15pm, Chester returned with the Musonda Lodge owner (the lodge across the street from Lusenga Trust in Kawambwa) and his SUV.
We all entered the already crowded vehicle with blaring Zambian reggae music. It was music to my ears!
By 11:11pm, we were back at Kawambwa. I never thought we’d be glad to return to our basic room at Lusenga Trust. Even that blaring music across the street that kept me up (among other things) last night was music to my ears!
We had our late night dinner of (what else?) chicken and rice, and we tried to sleep at 1am.
At least we’re back with our belongings. Now, we’ll have to wait and see tomorrow what the state of the rest of our safari will be considering we no longer have a vehicle…
Day 4: THE GREAT DUSTY ESCAPE
With our late night sleep last night, we got up a little late for another breakfast and this time a hot bucket shower (they still don’t have hot running water here and they probably never really had it). We weren’t sure what’s going to happen today nor how the rest of our ZamSaf itinerary would turn out. With so much uncertainty, peace of mind was something that seemed ever so elusive.
By 8:55am, Chester and Joseph showed up again. Clearly refreshed from much needed rest last night, they came up with news that Chester himself will hitch a ride further into town trying to find us transport to get to Kasama, which was quite a ways away from Kawambwa.
Chester’s initial plan was to have us wait in Kawambwa until he got his Pajero fixed. But Julie and I insisted that we get to Kasama by tonight someway somehow (maybe by taxi, maybe by a favor by a local villager) and have a new vehicle meet us there whether by Nickson hiring a car in Lusaka and having another driver meet us or by having another available driver with his car meet us there in Kasama.
So with Nickson (by cell phone) and Chester clearly aware of our demands (it was a good thing we were proactive about this), Chester set about trying to figure out what he can do in town. Meanwhile, Joseph joined Julie and I and we managed to flag down a taxi that would take us to Ntumbachushi Falls while Chester was doing his thing.
Compared to Kabwelume Falls yesterday, the road here was infinitely better, and we could tell Joseph was real proud of it.
The second waterfall offered us direct views, but was looking against the sun. Nonetheless, it was a nice waterfall and it seemed like it was a completely different waterfall from the first.
After seeing the second falls, Joseph wanted us to go to the top of the falls and see some ancient rock art. Unfortunately, with our thoughts on returning to Kawambwa somehow, we passed on that offer knowing it would take us at least a couple of hours.
So we paid Joseph the park fee (at our expense even though we had previously paid for it as part of our safari with ZamSaf) and then we walked back to the Ntumbachushi junction at the main road. Joseph stayed behind to return to work. So Julie and I were on our own again.
Joseph seemed very confident that we’d find a ride back to Kawambwa as there are usually a fair number of cars going that way.
At 10:40am, we were back at the junction waiting for a taxi. It was getting rather hot so we tried to juggle waiting in the shade just off the road while making ourselves visible to passing vehicles. Still, we were wondering whether Chester got the transport situation worked out when we return to town.
About 15 minutes later, it seemed that most the cars were going the other way (away from Kawambwa). Clearly we couldn’t be picky about finding blue taxis and it looked like we’ll have to just take our chances hitchhiking with whatever car was heading the way we’re going. So without further adieu, we started walking.
This pissed Julie off big time as he we were doing what backpackers do except we paid ZamSaf non-backpacking money for this safari. She was even taking some of that anger out on me for going along with Joseph’s idea to go to Ntumbachushi Falls in the first place. Still, I knew they were irrational concerns since we’d be spending time in Kawambwa doing nothing in the mean time had we stayed so I just let her stew.
Not long after we climbed to the top of the hill at 11:40am, a white SUV finally managed to stop for us and pick us up. They had no problems picking us up because we offered to pay equivalent taxi money to get back to town.
And 15 minutes later, we were back in Kawambwa. Unfortunately for the locals’ car, it seemed something went out after going over a speed bump too fast in town.
Calamity seemed to follow us everywhere we go!
Anyways, we walked just next door to our goal – the trusty old Lusenga Trust. There, we conversed with the employees for a bit, did some more reading, then had ourselves another chicken with rice lunch.
At 1pm, Chester finally showed up with a taxi driver. They came in a real beat-up blue car. When Chester said we’re catching this car to Kasama, Julie and I wondered whether we’d make it there! The taxi driver was confident in his little hooptie, however.
Meanwhile, Chester was going to stay behind and try to continue to rescue his Pajero from the bush.
The taxi car seemed fragile as its trunk didn’t seem to be able to close very well with all our bags in there. So we had to let some of the bags into the back seat. Eventually, the cab driver managed to keep the trunk closed, but whether it’d pop back open again in transit remained a worry.
At 1:45pm, we finally left the Lusenga Trust for Kasama.
“Kwenda bwino,” said an employee to us, which I guessed (from my studying Swahili and recognizing that -kwenda was the root word for “go”) meant to “go well.”
“Tuatotela,” I told him, which meant something like “we are thankful” in Bemba as we left.
And so we were on our Great Dusty Escape to Kasama. It’s supposed to be some 300km from here to Kasama, but we knew it would take a while as the road was unsealed and dusty initially, and who knew what shape the road would be in thereafter?
Julie and I feared that all our bags would get dusted after yesterday’s experience in Chester’s car. Plus, they don’t believe in closing their windows on unsealed roads, and I reckon the AC doesn’t work.
But the greater concern was whether we’d make it and the taxi car itself won’t break down.
And so we were off, and it fittingly seemed like we were leaving one phase of the waterfall safari behind and was entering another one. It truly did seem like an escape from the clutches of Kawambwa and the calamities that befell us here.
So for the next several hours, we anxiously rode in the old little 2wd blue 2wd Toyota Corolla or something like that vehicle. As expected, the road was dusty, bumpy, and riddled with ruts, potholes, washboards, you name it.
Still, the obstacles didn’t deter Titan (at least that’s what I thought I heard when I ask him his name). He proceeded almost at full speed despite the road conditions. He hardly rolled up the window so dust was getting everywhere inside the car. I wondered whether it’d get dusty in the trunk too.
I had hoped the tarmac would begin again after the town of Mporokoso (recalling something Joseph might have said to us), but that wasn’t meant to be.
I had hoped that we’d be in Kasama and not be on this road in the dark. But as the sun had set after 6:30pm and we still had a ways to go, I gave up on that notion.
Indeed, the escape seemed so close yet so far away.
Mercifully at 8pm, we finally found the Thorn Tree Lodge in Kasama. It ended up being a 6-hour roller coaster in that beat up taxi. The tarmac didn’t show up until the last 30 minutes. We got lost a bit in Kasama because Titan didn’t know where Thorn Tree Lodge was, but eventually we got there.
So here we were at Thorn Tree Lodge. We met the innkeeper named Claire, who was actually Caucasian. She saw both Julie and I in our dusty state and told us, “Looks like you two have been on a bit of an adventure.”
Apparently, Nickson had also gotten a hold of her and she was aware of our predicament regarding where we had to be for the remainder of our trip.
She had her workers give us wet rags to wipe off all the dust on ourselves and our ruined belongings.
She also insisted that Titan stay at Thorn Tree in the “driver’s room” as there’s no way he’s going for 6- or more hours in the dark back to Kawambwa.
We had also learned from Claire that Nickson didn’t bring us an alternate driver from Lusaka as we thought we had agreed earlier. We could read between the lines and we sensed that Nickson was still holding out hope that Chester will rendezvous with us at Mpulungu on the shores of Lake Tanganyika when we’re done with Kalambo Falls the day after tomorrow.
This was unacceptable as this wasn’t what we understood what was going to happen when we left Kawambwa, and we were really beginning to question the integrity of Nickson and ZamSaf.
Our state of affairs even got Julie venting to James (a Thorn Tree employee) about our predicament over dinner.
Anyways, Claire did mention to Julie that she’d arrange to take us up to Mpulungu and Isanga Bay. At first we thought Claire was merely an innkeeper, but little did we know that she was also the driver and guide for her own touring company called Thorn Tree Safaris.
So with the cloud of uncertainty still over us on the rest of the itinerary, which is now turned upside down, we tried to fight off the mosquitoes and rest off this night at Thorn Tree Lodge.
At least there was a hot shower! It was the first time that we could remember that we got one!
By 11pm, we were in bed, wondering what’s to come tomorrow…
Day 5: PARADISE ALMOST LOST
Julie and I awoke at 7am. Another day and perhaps the hope of better tidings…
After having breakfast, we packed our stuff and learned from Claire that she’s going to drive us to Mpulungu (on the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika) this morning. From there, someone on a motorboat would pick us up and take us to a place on the lakeshore called Isanga Bay.
By 8:50am, we left Kasama with Claire in a well-built 4wd vehicle. It was a far cry from Chester’s dumpy Pajero. Speaking of Chester, we learned he was still in Kawambwa.
The next three or so hours on the road with Claire turned out to be the most educational of the entire Zambia leg of our trip. In this time, we probably learned more from her than from the few days with Chester combined.
Claire is a Zambian-born Mzungu (white person), who along with her brother (also born here), learned Bemba as the first language before learning English. It was quite a unique background.
She seemed to have a rather challenging upbringing being different from everyone else. Even when she went to more traditional schools in the UK later in life, she didn’t really fit in with that mold of the prissie girl that had her clique and tried to be popular. In fact, she said she was more of a rough-and-tumble type who wasn’t afraid to get in fights and settle the matter then and there and not hold grudges.
Anyways, her proficiency in both languages and her intimate knowledge of Northern Zambia (let alone Zambia itself) allowed us to discuss various things about the state of the country, the politics, environmentalism, education, her active involvement in the local communities here, and even her knowing of the guides we’ve come to know like Chanda, Joseph, even Chester, and Nickson.
She shakes her head and wonders how Nickson runs the company the way he does and gets away with it, and why they don’t partner up letting Claire take over the north. Come to think of it, it was kind of strange that Nickson asked his competitor to bail him our of this latest situation with our safari.
She also commented on how Africans (especially the women) have the ability to balance things on their heads to free up their hands to do other things while holding the baby strapped on the back or front. All this was really more of a practical solution, and came down to nothing more than good posture (and not a flat head as many foreigners are quick to assume).
Even squatting to go potty was a more natural position than say sitting on a toilet, she contended.
So with all this going on, we didn’t mind so much the crappy state of the roads (which not surprisingly was littered with potholes).
When it was about 12:40pm, we arrived at Mpulungu, which was a surprisingly bustling port town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Since the lake was bordered by several countries (Tanzania, Zambia, DR Congo, and Burundi), it had an interesting mix of Swahili-speakers, French-speakers, and Bemba-speakers.
Of course, she openly vents about the lake being overfished as it seems everyone here is out to go fishing for both food and money. Indeed they’re getting too good at catching the fish with fine mosquito nets (so they’re getting the young fish before they can spawn).
This was not what we expected in the middle of Africa!
This place felt like a little bit of a tropical island paradise (like Tahiti), but we’re still connected to the main land. All huts had the traditional straw-roofs, including the cool and spacious reception area. Our little chalet was also an elevated hut complete with multiple beds with mosquito nets around them. Our front porch had a nice view of the sandy beach and the lake itself.
So here we were in the middle of Africa and this little little-known paradise. It’s crazy to think that this was paradise almost lost with all the calamities that befell us in Kawambwa.
Nonetheless, we’re here and we’re sure glad Claire seemed to have rescued our waterfall safari from the clutches of failure. We knew we’d be in good hands with her and as long as she and Nickson were in contact with Rene being in on the loop, this safari seemed like it might work out after all.
As the weather started to cool down, we decided to explore the property a little and see if we could find a spot where we could catch the sunset. There was a short trail that took us out to some kind of peninsula where we were pretty much able to look across the lake in the direction of the setting sun without obstructions before us.
Rene and Sean’s dog named “Buffy” seemed attached to us so she was out there chillin with us both on our hut and on the beach; wherever we went.
Indeed, this place was just what the doctor ordered.
The only drawback was that there were no electrical outlets so we didn’t do much with the computer. That’s ok though because the property is completely solar powered except for the kitchen. So we still had lighting and more importantly – hot shower!
Day 6: ZAMBIA’S OTHER BORDER WATERFALL
At 6:15am, Julie and I awoke to a tranquil morning. Buffy slept the entire night outside our door on the elevated front veranda. And as became now the familiar drill, I gave her a much-appreciated belly-rub as she would continue to follow us everywhere we go. In fact, Julie now calls Buffy my buddy.
Indeed, I was starting to treat Buffy as if she was a dog I knew well. I guess I have a soft spot for dogs, and perhaps that was due to the fact that I had dogs as pets sporadically during my youth and my parents even had a pair at their place.
At around 7:55am, we arrived at the village. What happened thereafter was a blur as crowds of kids and adolescent locals surrounded both Julie and I. We had trouble trying to keep up with our guide Arisha because these kids kept holding our hands and I’m guessing hoping we give out handouts.
The village itself looked like a typical rural African village with humble mudbrick homes and straw roofs. It looked like there was no running water nor electricity here. The adults even looked on us as apparently we’re one of the few Mzungus who actually come out to these parts.
Eventually, we made our way to the back of the village where we then followed a well-used trail amongst tall grass and started climbing in earnest. We were still followed by the kids from the village, but I think when we got maybe a kilometer or so, they retreated back to the lakeshore.
It wasn’t long before the gradual climb became much steeper. Many of the steps were over large rocks and required large strides or being on all fours. To make matters worse, the sun was very hot and intense already this morning. Shaded relief from the sun’s rays was limited and all of us were sweating profusely.
This was one of those things where you have to get comfortable with your own discomfort and filth. And I’m sure it wasn’t long before we were already in that state of mind.
Finally at about 2/3rds the way up, we started to be sheltered by some shade from the cliffs before us. We kept crossing dry washes and there wasn’t a sound of water in sight so we wondered whether Kalambo Falls would be flowing or not.
The plateau was also a welcome sight in another sense. The drainage we had just ascended was not the Kalambo River and I’d bet the falls was on a separate drainage. So there was still hope the falls would be flowing and our efforts wouldn’t be in vain.
Unfortunately, the plateau was mostly exposed to the sun so this was where the heat of the day was really taking its toll on us. By now our water bottles were warm, we were sweating bullets, but at least we were starting to get comfortable in our filth.
When the plateau did offer what limited shade it had beneath sparse trees, we really appreciated how good it felt to be out of the sun for a few minutes. But those stretches were way too few and far between.
At about 9:40am, Arisha led us into a rather obscure detour into some very tall grass that was taller than us. It eventually led to a trail of use which quickly gave way to another steep descent towards a rocky ledge. It was then that we finally started to hear the loud distant thunder of Kalambo Falls, and we didn’t see the falls until we were finally right on the edge of the ledge.
Kalambo Falls is Zambia’s other border waterfall (with Victoria Falls being the more famous one as it borders the troubled Mugabe-dictated Zimbabwe). Except in this case, it’s Tanzania on the other side of the Kalambo River. Claire and Sean both said earlier that in the dry season, the falls are less impressive, but you can actually put one foot on Tanzania and one foot on Zambia at the top of the falls!
It was too bad we were looking against the 10am sun, but that didn’t stop us from snapping what photos we could all the while mindful of the precipitous drop at the edge of ledge.
We had ourselves a quick snack break and drink break. The falls were still in shadow at this time of day, but the sun was directly above and it probably wasn’t but another hour or two before the entire falls and cliff would be lit up by the unrelenting sun.
I’m guessing early afternoon is the best time to arrive at the falls, but with the hot heat and the grueling climb to get here, it’s an exercise in punishment at best to not leave first thing in the morning.
Even now, Julie was getting impatient as she couldn’t wait to descend back to the village and our waiting boat as the day got even hotter. I personally wanted to spend some hours here, but I had a feeling Arisha wasn’t up for that. Julie kept insisting that I not dilly dally longer.
We hastily made our way downhill all the while trying to be careful not to take a nasty tumble on the steep sections. Even with our hiking boots and outdoor clothing, we were still passed by villages (most of them older women) wearing flip-flops while balancing stuff on their heads and keeping their hands free. Clearly, they’re more adept at walking this trail than we ever could be.
Anyways by 12:15pm, we finally returned to the village. My arthritic knees were quite sore as they always are on long steep hikes like this. Julie gave out what few spare pens she had on her as she clearly saw they could use it here. I didn’t have much to give except what’s left of my water and plastic bottle.
In the late afternoon, after the arrival of a South African couple on the property, we chatted with Rene and Sean about Nickson and some of the stunts they’ve pulled in the past regarding delayed payments and other shenanigans.
At dinner, we chatted with the South African couple. The husband apparently did some mining work in the Copperbelt Province, but took some time off with his wife to enjoy Isanga Bay.
We learned much about South Africa from them, especially the bit about the rather high rate of crime in Johannesburg and the xenophobia that is now scouring the country. We also got a taste of the Africaans language, which seemed to have in interesting mix of various European languages and possibly some local African languages as well. It was definitely something we’ve never heard before and even Rene was conversing with them in Africaans since she had lived in South Africa at one time as well.
Anyways, although we left out Tugela Falls on our trip due to reasons of last year’s drought and logistical nightmares to make it happen on this trip, I guess we were further glad not to be part of the xenophobic violence that was going on there right now. South Africa will have to be for another time…
Though the couples’ description of both Tugela Falls in the Drakensberg and Augrabies Falls as well as Cape Town definitely put SA on our list of to-dos if we return to Africa in the future…
We told the couple about our rather adventurous path to Isanga Bay what with the bucket showers, vehicle breakdowns, etc. That prompted the South African husband to say, “Yaw, Africa is not for sissies, is it?”
Day 7: THE RACE FOR A MUTINONDO SUNSET
When Claire dropped us off two days ago, she intended for us to be leaving Mpulungu by 8am so we could catch a spectacular African sunset at the Mutinondo Wilderness Lodge.
After some text messages and what not, Rene told us that her driver would be here at 9am instead of 8am as he took off late. I guess we wouldn’t get more of Claire’s wisdom on this day.
Anyways, it was 6am when Julie and I awoke and got ready for the day. All last night, there were lights out on the lake and some talking in the distance. It was a rather eerie sight and kind of reminded me of some of those movies where savages from the unknown would come out, kidnap unwary travelers, then cannibalize them or do some other macabre ceremony.
Well, all that was put to rest when Rene brought us up to speed that those were the wretched night fishers who were overfishing the lake with their mosquito nets. It’s easy to see this lake eventually losing all of its fish…
From there, Vincent (Claire’s driver) showed up with the rugged 4wd vehicle shortly thereafter. And without further adieu, he took our stuff and we hopped in and were on our way back to Kasama. Unlike our experience with Claire, this leg of the journey was less conversational. This led us to believe that had we booked with Thorn Tree instead of ZamSaf, you’d still want to be guided by Claire. But we knew she had a newborn and that she needed more help to keep her business running while she’s busy being a mom.
At 11:35am, we arrived at the Thorn Tree Lodge in Kasama. We waited around here for Claire, but that was when Vincent realized that she wouldn’t be taking us to Mutinondo as she was at home tending to her newborn. So we’d get Vincent for the rest of today including the side trip to Chishimba Falls.
We were allowed to walk the grounds on our own without a guide. So we immediately headed towards the main falls as fast as we could knowing that there wouldn’t be much time to catch the sunset later in the day.
When I heard Julie’s frantic cries for my name, I ran even faster. Eventually, I met up with the worried Julie who was very upset at me for not being with her. She was worried I might have been swept away by the falls.
Anyways, after a long embrace, we were back at the car park at 1:35pm and proceeded to head back to Kasama in haste. We were there at 2pm where Vincent pulled up to Claire’s home. It was there that we met Claire once again and her baby named Storm.
“You’re going to miss the sunset,” she said.
On the 25km unsealed detour to the lodge from the Great North Road, there was even an impala that raced in front of the car across the road.
By 5:30pm, Vincent managed to get us to Mutinondo Wilderness Lodge. Without hesitation, Julie and I wasted no time getting out of the car and snapping the few moments of sunset we could capture before the sun disappeared from the horizon.
Julie was actually shown to the bar area while I went out into a lower open area. I sure wish we had some extra time to explore the best viewing spots, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be on this day. We had to make do with the African sunset we were given.
And with that, we thanked Vincent for taking us here and playing a part in rescuing our waterfall safari. Then, we were oriented by the lodge owner Mike, who surprisingly didn’t speak any Bemba but did know Swahili from his time in Kenya.
Mutinondo Wilderness Lodge was another one of those eco-lodges that was completely solar power except for cooking. Each chalet had its own personality and all but one of them had an open side (i.e. no windows or walls). It was a rather unique concept, and it certainly gave you a sense that you were one with the bush.
Anyways, we had a pleasant dinner with Mike himself. We learned more about his run-ins with ZamSaf and Nickson, and he confessed that he very reluctantly took our booking. Clearly, Nickson and ZamSaf’s reputation was legendary in Zambia’s hospitality business.
We arranged with Nickson to have a driver pick us up tomorrow at 8am. Mike wasn’t so sure someone would come by that time. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed.
Anyways, we spent a rather cool (Julie thought it was chilly) evening under the starry skies.
Oh by the way, the hot solar-heated shower never felt better to contrast the cold night!
Day 8: THE HOOPTIE BACK TO LUSAKA
At 6:15am, I awoke and wasted no time getting dressed and braving the already frigid cold morning to try to catch the sunrise.
Anyways at 7am, we had breakfast. Mike said it was unusually cold this morning, but that made the porridge, oatmeal, and tea go down that much easier.
At around 8am, a surprised Mike came up to me and said, “Well, I never… Your driver actually showed up on time.”
Indeed, Chester showed up as well as fellow ZamSaf driver Alfred.
“Chester!” I shouted.
Even though we’ve associated Chester with ZamSaf and all the calamities that went with it, it did feel like we were rejoining an old friend again.
Chester in his broken enlish told Julie and I that he managed to get a bush mechanic to take out the drive train, weld it in his shop, then return to the car to put the drive train back in. From there, he drove back to Lusaka where he joined Alfred and they met us here.
Chester also handed Julie the Yellow Fever Certificate we had fretted about ever since Victoria Falls.
Indeed, it seemed like it was all coming together.
Regardless of Nickson’s past, we had to hand it to him that he did deliver in the end.
Anyways, after making sure Mike got paid, we headed back to Lusaka at 8:20am. This time, time was on our side…
And so we got into Alfred’s Pajero. It was newer than Chester’s, but it still had a cracked windshield. The speedometer also wasn’t working (needle stuck on 0 km/h) so the driver couldn’t tell how fast he was going.
What’s more, the trunk smelled like petrol. In fact, some of it seemed to have gotten on Julie’s luggage so it too smelled of the toxic stuff. After some thinking, we put the petrol cans on top of the car – ala Chester.
Ah yes, back to the old ZamSaf hoopties.
Alfred tried to convince Julie the car was only 2 years old after Julie asked him about the car. She didn’t buy it.
“Maybe you bought it used two years ago, but it’s not two years old!” she said.
And so the drive back was mostly uneventful except for a moment when Chester pulled off to the side of the road wondering if the car was overheating.
Great, now what?
After Alfred assured Chester and Julie it wasn’t a problem because the temperature gauge also wasn’t working, we nervously continued on the road for the rest of the day. The temperature gauge would indicate a heating up car whenever we went downhill, and that it was cooling down whenever we went uphill. Go figure…
And so with all the waterfall part of our safari over with, our 10 waterfalls in 10 days ended up being more like 7 waterfalls in 10 days… (Kundalila, Mumbuluma, Ntumbachushi, Lumangwe, Kabwelume, Kalambo, and Chishimba). The other ones were either missed or didn’t count as legitimate waterfalls worth bragging about. I think that ZamSaf itinerary seriously needs some retooling…
Leaving Mutinondo on the morning we had an 11am international flight? Yeah right!
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