Ben Winston

Not your average travel blog

This is after all, with all its failings and wonder – Africa.

Just twenty minutes out of the city in any direction, you’ll see some more traditional communities strewn throughout the landscape. Huts and villages filled with underdeveloped African nostalgia. It’s easy to romanticise, but these are the blood cells that keep the African continent pumping; poverty and hardship meets grit and survival. It’s extremely easy to say that anyone in the west would find it undeniably difficult to live the lifestyle that so many Africans do.

Passing through the city of Lusaka is like travelling through a kaleidoscope of entertaining, but semi-ruined cultural dreams. It is a bulging pinnacle of African urbanity. Built on farming and mining, it isn’t exactly a tourism hotspot, but as a stop-off on route from south to north, it is an unmissable eyesore of built up bullishness. On the highway alone, as it snakes through the city with all its trafficking mayhem, you can count over fourteen lit-up casinos the size of small castles. Add the modern shopping malls, business complexes, dusty shacks with traffic light street-sellers pushing everything from dried fish to bathroom soap, unpackaged lingerie to badly-burnt CD’s, mop-heads to wigs (at least I think I could distinguish between the two). Especially after coming from such remote and desolate roads stretching from any side of the Zambian capital, it’s makes you sweat as the city in rush-hour quickly and noisily engulfs your senses.
Passing through as swiftly as possible is the best option…

            Not a photographic representation of Lusaka

When things go wrong in Africa, they usually do in spectacular fashion.
The map shoes the road right in front of us. The GPS shows the road right in front of us. From previous experience, we know the road is right in front of us. We get out of Penelope and ask a local where the road is. A Jack the Lad local squinter responds by stating that he likes to smoke – we carry cigarettes specifically this purpose. As the road is clearly no longer here, so we ask where it is now. He informs us this time that he really likes to smoke. The first cigarette seemed to instantly disappear through two long drags so we get another from our “encouragement pack”. We are informed the locals have used the road to plant cassava on. Their crops are not only in the fields either side of the road leading to the national park, but across it as well. It is no longer possible to reach the north entrance to the Lower Zambezi National Park.

If we want to venture to the park, we will have to drive 250 kilometres around the to the east, then south to Luangwa where there should be another gate. “There should be…”

With tired and disgruntled guests, this isn’t the best of situations. In fact, it’s a nightmare. However, it was explained prior to the trip that it was totally an expedition-style venture. It was partially a reconnaissance trip to see what there is to explore and if we could come back with guests. The price very much reflected this, so it isn’t a total snozzcumber. It has to be explained simply, that “this is Africa”. There isn’t much can be done. In hindsight, (as we always do) we had quite the adventure, and this unique (but unsurprising African situation) must be remembered in only one way – with laughter.

Three hours later, after finding a government office in Luangwa, we are told we need to find the park official. We search through a few rickety doorways and dusty side streets. Clearly not expecting visitors, we find him half a kilometre away in the local village… in his pyjamas, on a bed of ripped up blankets, asleep. It’s two in the afternoon. While I make us some coffee on Penelope’s tailgate, the official sluggishly shows up to his office. It is only made obvious that it is in fact a ranger’s office because the door is green, with a pair of massive Kudu horns propped up against the wall next to it. Inside is filled, floor to ceiling, with cans of beans, cheap no frills curry, and various other rations you might only find in the ration-bag of a simple soldier, and mostly only edible in desperate or lost situations of a survivalist expecting to be dropped into a challenging wilderness. On an upturned beer crate, while the semi-nocturnally-dressed storeroom keeper filled out our paperwork as slowly as a sloth at a meditation retreat, we eventually received the pass we needed to enter the park. I made and drank three coffees before the paperwork materialised with Bjorn, who returned in dire need of something a lot stronger than coffee.

We were advised that we should stay in the village and enter the park in the morning. It is apparently a perfect couple of hours drive to the river, to maybe have a picnic, and return back again. This was soon proven to be the most ridiculous suggestion ever made by a park official…ever.

To begin with, there was no gate to the park. It became clear after an hour from the town, we had no idea whether we were in the park or not, or if we had taken the right road. Enjoying the scenery, Penelope took her time. On the rough and slow-going terrain, it was well past lunch before we arrived anywhere near where we thought the river was. We even climbed a nearby hill to see if we could get bearings, although it was obvious, we had some industrious driving to do. This entrance to the park was clearly not often used and Penelope was tested multiple times over rough ground, using all her off-road 4×4 and escape-pod capabilities. The slopes and hills made it hard to figure out, but we were going in the right direction. There was only one road!

We passed through three very different and distinct landscapes. Tetsie fly belts came and went, we traversed rivers and streams, thick bush and dealt with fallen trees over the track. The huge baobabs were memorable on our way West. We saw a large tail disappear up into the shadows when we crossed one of the many dry rivers and although eager to go take a look to see what we had seen, we didn’t risk getting stuck in the sand.

We met a couple of armed rangers who arrived hastily to the purring sounds of Penelope. Wondering what we were doing, it became clear that they were not accustomed to people driving into the park – particularly from the direction we had come from. They inquired what we were doing. “Obviously, they weren’t golfers”.

As the gateman informed us that we could drive a couple of hours for a picnic and return before 4pm, we had been severely ill-advised.

Almost as badly-advised as when we were told it would take only four hours to drive to a camp site in the Kalahari dessert…when it took two solid days of driving though heavy sand. It is suggestible that if you venture here; take every piece of direction or advice with extreme caution, and more than a pinch of salt.

We did however, reluctantly but optimistically, attempt to take direction once again. We asked how far it was to get out of the park to the West. This ranger actually sounded like he knew. “At least later tomorrow” he said. We ventured towards the river to try and find somewhere to camp. Unfortunately, we were not greeted warmly by the concession, which I suspect was due to the fact that they know where their bookings come from, we weren’t one of them, and that he who made no attempt to be gracious, had obviously not had any for I would imagine, decades.

We were however welcomed by rangers who were guarding an airstrip, deeper into the park. We pitched our tents next to the run way and shared our food with the very grateful plane-guardians, who were appreciative of the friendly company.

The next morning contained probably one of the most entertaining of memories on safari; as one of our guests emphatically suggested to his friend that the tracks of a tractor were in fact, the tracks left by a giant python. That’s all I am going to say on the incident.

We shared breakfast with the friendly rangers and headed off in the direction they suggested – to hopefully leave the park zone around lunchtime.
Sadly, the road ahead turned to dense woodland and then a dry sand riverbed. Driving the same track twice, it became clear that the road out was anything but. Most of the people who visited this park either flew in, or arrived on a river boat to include some tiger fishing. We, as usual, had to do things the more adventurous way. After some calculated measurements, considered positioning and some tactical manoeuvres, we found our way to the right exit road…only to be halted for 45 minutes by a huge herd of cape buffalo. Not exactly an animal you want to try and forcefully move.

Eventually, we ended what was possibly the most eventful wilderness adventure we had ever tackled, and exited the park on the East side. We had previously driven past this entrance a week earlier, thinning we’d see a different part of the park to everyone else. As it turned out, I think we have seen more of this park than anyone ever to visit it, including the rangers that work here! We spend another two days driving the road we had previously driven to circumnavigate the park, and then stretch our legs on the home straight back to Malawi.

We may be prepped for every eventuality, however with the road vanishing into crop fields, “every” eventuality needs to be taken lightly. Like a bad magician who continues to cock up the trick, (where you find the dead rabbit and a stained silk cloth under the table) this is after all, with all its failings and wonder – Africa.

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Where am I now?

After extensive work and tours through Southern Africa, most of my time is spent between Malawi and Europe.
Go Untamed Safaris was striding into top gear, but volatile poitics in 2019, Covid in 2020, the impacts of Russia vs the World as well as insesent corruption forced my hand.
The dust is now settling. Everything has changed. New chapters are about to be written.

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