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Camping safari in Zambia

Luangwa, Luambe, Bangweulu and Mutinondo

Zambia - Zambian woman

Through the stunningly beautiful Luangwa Valley, via the famous South Luangwa National Park and Luambe National Park to the rarely visited North Luangwa National Park. Then on through the Zambian highlands and the vast marshes of Bangweulu to Mutinondo Wilderness. Spending a night in the bush with to the left of the tents two roaring lions and to right two more.

Travelogue & photos: Riet & André Janssen

When it's finally our turn to get our visa and we push our 25 dollars over the counter, the immigration officer looks around him if no one is watching and then asks matter-of-factly if we want a receipt. He can't quite hide his disappointment when we nod affirmatively. We definitely missed a chance to contribute to Zambia's informal economy here.

Zambia - Great East Road

Once outside, we are caught in a pungent smell, caused by tens of thousands of charcoal fires on which the people of Lusaka cook their meals. After half an hour our noses have accepted the smell and we have become part of Africa.

Our two Volkswagen Synchros (Four-Wheel Drive camper vans) are waiting for us. We drive to the South Luangwa National Park via the Great East Road. It is one of the few asphalt road in this big country, so the longest drive we'll take during our vacation (400 km to Petauke) goes smoothly.


The market is women's territory

Zambia - Petauke, woman in the market

Petauke has a good market and, even more important, a gas station, rice, bread, meat, vegetables and liquor. We buy as much as we can stow in our van, because in the coming weeks we will rarely find the opportunity to get supplies.

The Petauke market also offers our first oppportunity to get to know the colorful and friendly population of Zambia. There's always someone who speaks English (children study this language in school), so it's easy to make contact. Some conversation and a few jokes break the ice and we can take photos without any problems.

Zambia - Petauke, women in the market

It's unusual in Africa, but all merchandise has price tags. No negotiating about prices. Sometimes they give you some extra tomatoes or onions for good customer relations.

The price tags have a Dutch background: Petauke's current mayor lived in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, for a while. He was impressed with the efficiency of Dutch markets. Price tags prevent endless haggling, which saves time, misunderstandings and conflicts.

Zambia - Petauke, woman in the market

When he became mayor, he introduced obligatory price tagging in the market of Petauke. Everyone observes this rule and all merchandise is neatly priced in Zambian kwachas.

Zambia - Petauke, market

Fortunately, the gas station in Petauke has both diesel and gas. This not to be taken for granted in Zambia. Never ignore the rule "Always get gas while you can."

Old Petauke Road

Through dry riverbeds along small villages

Zambia - In a dry riverbed

We try to find out if the beautiful but adventurous Old Petauke Road, which leads via the village of Sandwe to Mfuwe, is accessible. We get contradicting answers, but eventually we decide to trust the information a gas station employee gave us, that the day before yesterday someone drove on that road.

Zambia - Village children

And so we leave the asphalt road to Chipata, with its treacherous potholes and drive inland on bumpy country roads. It's a 170 km trip. >From now on, there is only a small chance that we'll encounter another car.

Zambia - Village children surround the van

Our route takes us along typical Zambian villages. The road is interrupted by dry river beds with steep sandy banks. The Volkswagen Synchro's low gearing works wonders and pulls us out of the soft sand onto the steep banks every time. Around villages there often are myriads of tire tracks. In those cases, the GPS comes in handy.

Luangwa River

Shabby villages by the water

Zambia - Luangwa River

The Luangwa is one of the few African rivers which is still in its original state. Undisturbed by human interference, the rivers flows for over 900 km through the northeastern part of Zambia and finally empties in the mighty Zambezi River.

The Muchinga Escarpment, one of the last remains of the Great African Gorge, forms the natural border of the valley and is a wonderful backdrop for the river. During the next one and a half weeks we will follow the river valley.

Shabby villages lie in ribbons along the water. When the children hear a car, they come running to wave and call out greetings. The Bemba and Bisa tribes only live on the east bank of the river, because the South and North Luangwa Parks are free of human settlements.

Zambia - Corn sheds in a village

Fish is an important source of food here. Parts of the forest are burned down everywhere for the cultivation of corn and cassave. Cassave, which as the "crop of the poor" grows always and everywhere, is especially popular.

South Luangwa National Park

A never-ending symphony of hippo sounds

Wildlife Camp and the nearby Track and Trail River Camp, (nice camping site, friendly Dutch owners) are beautifully situated by the river. The view from our tent is stunning. The hooping grumble of countless hippoes, the alarm cries of birds like the hadeda ibis, the smells of the land and the daily crossing of the elephants are unforgettable.

Zambia - Cooking fire near the vans

There are three kinds of camp sites in Zambia. The commercial ones, like the Track and Trail River Camp, usually belong to a lodge of the same name and offer simple but good amenities.

Community Camps, like Mwanya It's Wild Bush Camp, are managed by the local community. The quality of amenities varies, but the hospitality is often overwhelming.

Zambia - Hippoes in the Luangwa

Last but not least, sometimes you'll have to camp in the wild. It's an overwhelming experience that you shouldn't miss. Always look for foraging paths. If you don't want to be disturbed in your "bedroom", don't pitch your tent on a hippo path!

The Luangwa is a forceful river. During the rainy season, the water rises 6 meters. The strong current further erodes the banks, uprooting large trees, which then are taken away by the wild water. Steep banks and skeletons of drowned trees are typical for this river.

Zambia - Elephants cross the Luangwa

Every evening, just before sunset, the elephants cross the Luangwa. From our tent we see three startled yellow-billed storks fly away with slow movements of their wings. In the deep part of the river, the elephants in the herd take the calf between them. Crocodiles are always lurking.

When the calf lags behind, a large female waits for it patiently. The next morning they will return to the safety of the South Luangwa National Park.

It sounds odd, but African wild animals respect tents. It rarely happens that people in closed tents are in danger. And a good thing it is, too, because every night the hyenas take a stroll in our camp, sniffing, hippoes shuffle along their regular paths to where they forage and elephants demolish the tree that you feel so comfy under with your tent.

Zambia - Fighting hippoes in the Luangwa

Camping along the river is a never ending symphony of hippo noises. Sometimes peacefully murmuring in the background, then again deafeningly loud in an explosion of agression and angry growling. There aren't many places in Africa where one is as close to hippoes as here by the Luangwa.

Night Drive

Beams of rays flash along the dark sky

Zambia - Civet

Contrary to our expectation, a Night Drive doesn't take place at night, but begins immediately after sunset and ends around 8 PM. Still it's a special experience, because the strong spotlights the guides use find animals which you wouldn't see otherwise, like the giant eagle owl and the civet.

Zambia - giant eagle owl

During the daytime it doesn't seem that there are that many visitors in the park, but during the Night Drive we see many searchlights looking for wildlife in the bush. Beams of rays flash along the dark sky as if to spot enemy planes.

This is because most guides stay close to the only exit, a bridge, to be able to leave the park before it closes.

Luambe National Park

Four lions roar to the left and right of the tents

Zambia - Chikwinda Gate

We leave South Luangwa and travel, via the Nsefu sector known for its hot springs, to Luambe National Park, which lies between South and North Luangwa National Park.

Zambia - Through an almost dry river bed

We cross dry or almost dry riverbeds and leave Nsefu via Chikwinda Gate, a simple wooden gate and a local civil servant, where we sign out after paying a small amount of money.

Zambia - Camp on river bank

Today we camp out in the wild, so by the end of the afternoon we look for a place to pitch our tents. We leave the paths and make our way between mopane shrubs. Navigating with our GPS, we find a great spot by the Luangwa river.

Zambia - Tents between mopane shrubs

We pitch the tents far away from the many hippo paths which are clearly recognizable, looking like trenches in the soft sand.

Zambia - Lion footprints around the tents

It is an exciting night. Four lions visit our camp. They lie two by two to the left and right of the tents and make it clear, by their loud roaring, that we are on their turf. At times like this, we are jealous of our traveling companions who sleep in tents on the rooftops of the Volkswagen vans.

Zambia - Pukus

Pukus are characteristic for Zambia. Often they are accompanied by impalas. Though similar in shape and height, they are easily recognizable by their solid red-brown color and woolly fur. The blue wildebeest and the Thornycroft giraffe are also original inhabitants of the Luangwa Valley.

North Luangwa National Park

During the rainy season everything is flooded

Arriving from the east, the Luangwa pontoon is the only entrance to the wild North Luangwa National Park for individual travelers. Because the river has no fixed course, the pontoon is in a different place every year.

Zambia - Luangwa pontoon

It's hard to find the Luangwa pontoon. GPS is a great help and who doesn't have it, shouldn't miss the sign "Luelo to pontoon". There are weeks in which no one crosses the river and the only company for the pontoon man is a large group of hippoes who perform their 24/7 concert in the background.

We stay at the Community Camp 'It's Wild Bush Camp' of Chifunda. The eleven people staff (from cook and assistant, waterboy and assistant to guard and assistants) allow us to pitch our own tent, but make sure that the cardboard box for tips is clearly visible. I don't blame them: it could be weeks before new guests arrive.

Zambia - Waterboys

The chores are divided creatively, it turns out: the waterboy is a watergirl, who gets "filtered" water from the sandy riverbed, supervised by the manager.

The next morning, following instructions by the pontoon man, we drive our Synchros very carefully down the steep bank. When we have crossed the river, we are in North Luangwa National Park, which has been accessible to tourists only since a few years and then only during a few months a year. The trip to Buffalo Camp, where we will spend the night, is a wonderful game drive along the river.

Zambia - Fruit of the sausage tree

Impressive forests surround the river with mighty trees like the sausage tree, red mahogany and cathedral mopane dominating the landscape.

Zambia - The route winds through dry riverbeds

The route meanders through the woods, takes us through dry riverbeds and again and again we enjoy the impressive views of the Luangwa river with its characteristic high, steep banks, wide sandbanks and bizarrely shaped tree skeletons in the midstream.

We continue on inland and as soon as we leave the river, the land gets dryer and vegetation scarcer. The beautiful greens fade to yellow-brown. Low brushes dominate the landscape. We are on our way to one of the only three camp sites in this large (almost 5,000 km2 nature park.

Zambia - Flowers sausage tree

North Luangwa National Park has only half the surface of the more accessible South Luangwa National Park. It is considered one of the last real wildernesses of Southern Africa. The park is famous for its Game Walks.

Zambia - Meeting with lions during a Game Walk with armed scouts

Encounters with lions are not unusual. The armed scouts tell us, reassuringly, that to lions, man is the main predator during the daytime, so they avoid humans. But, they add, keep in mind that the big cats know very well that the situation is reversed in the darkness of the night.

Zambia - Buffalo Camp

Buffalo Camp is in the North Park. This small and relatively affordable camp is situated in a bend of the Mwaleshi river, with the Luangwa the only permanent river in this park. It's open from May/June to November.

In the rainy season that follows, everything is flooded by the rising river, which means that vacation homes and all amenities have to be rebuilt in spring. North Luangwa Park has large numbers of Cape buffalo. There are herds of over a thousand animals. The numerous lions in this area specialize in hunting this buffalo.

Zambia - Buffalo head

An encounter with a herd of Cape buffalo is impressive, but rarely dangerous. Some guides in North Luangwa Park even take take their groups during Game Walks into a herd. Still, we wouldn't like to try that.

A confrontation with a solitary buffalo bull is a completely different matter. Guides keep a respectful distance, because it is known that these animals sometimes charge without warning.

Love Bean

In Africa this plant has many medicinal uses

A good guide does more than name the kinds of animals you see. Guide Josephat in North Luangwa explains the ecological connection between the structure of the soil, plants that grow there and the use of them by humans and animals. There is a red berry, know as love bean or crab's eye (abrus precatorius). It has medicinal uses in Africa, varying from curing infected eyes to treatment of infertility in women.

Zambia - Love Bean

Breaking the red shell releases a paralyzing poison which can be used to dip arrows in. There is a widespread belief that swallowing the berry can give you eternal youth. As long as you swallow without breaking the shell with your teeth!

Worn as a string of beads, they provide strong sexual appeal. This explains the other name of the berry: lucky charm.

Bangweulu Marshesn

European swallows and storks spend the winter here

Zambia - Island in Bangweulu Marshes

The Bangweulu Marshes cover a surface of 10,000 km2. Large parts are flooded from November to late spring with an average of 1 meter water. The area is not accessible in this period. The higher-lying parts can be reached only by boat. Millions of birds stay in and around these food-rich waters.

Swallows and storks which spend the summer in Europe, enjoy the rich variety of food. People travel here to see the rare shoe-bill stork, one of the strangest birds on earth.

Zambia - Jackal in the Bangweulu marshes

The men of the local tribes (Bisa en Ushi) stay on the islands during the rainy season, catch fish and dry it there. When the water retreats, they return to their villages.

In contrast with the national parks, Bangweulu Area is a so-called GMA: Game Management Area, where hunting is regulated. Inhabitants of the small villages can hunt and fish here without permits. Foreign hunters can buy a very expensive hunting permit. You pay per animal you want to shoot.

Zambia - Oribi

The vast grassfields and so-called wetlands are impressive. Everywhere are large herds of black lechwe, a kind of antelope which is endemic here and can be seen in herds of sometimes over a thousand animals.

Because of unlimited pouching they became almost extinct. Thanks to the GMA there are now almost a hundred thousand again.

Zambia - Camping in the wild in the Bangweulu marshes

We camp in the wild and experience an overwhelming sunset. The deep darkness of the night is broken by crystal-clear stars in the sky. The mysterious sounds of insects is alternated with the barking of a jackal or the sinister laughing of hyenas.

In the morning we take a last tour of the area and find an oribi, a shy antelope which lives here in small numbers.

Mutinondo Wilderness

Miombo woods with green, yellow and especially deep-red colors

Zambia - Miombo woods in Mutinondo Wilderness

The Mutinindo Wilderness is on the edge of the Luangwa Escarpment and is known for its large granite "whale backs" that are characteristic for this landscape. We climb the highest one, Mayense, and enjoy the view.

The miombo woods (brachystegia and julbernardia species) are remarkable. In this time of the year they display a mix of green, yellow and especially deep-red colors.

Zambia - Kundallila waterfall

The last highlight is the Kundallila waterfall, one of the many in Zambia. We have this beautiful waterfall to ourselves and swim in the small, ice-cold lake at its bottom. A literally breathtaking experience!

Driving through small villages we leave the inland. People are still waving at us and when we stop, the whole village comes out. People are hardly ever pushy and mainly enjoy the contact: the same goes for us.

Zambia - The village comes out

And then we're back on the asphalt road and take the Great North Road back to Lusaka. The many road blocks (mainly to check car documents and insurance policies) make it clear that we are getting back to "civilization".

Everywhere along the road we now see charcoal warehouses. The charcoal is transported in thousands of bags, by trucks and bicycles, to the capital. The smell of tens of thousands of charcoal cooking fires, Zambia's "natural gas", increases.

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