2014: Caprivi and Zambia

25 – 31 October 2014

We’d decided to enter Zimbabwe close to Mana Pools via Zambia. Rather than cross to Zambia directly from Botswana, we decided to go via the Caprivi strip from Katima Mulilo: why do things the easy way eh?! Actually, as we were so close, we’d thought it would be rude not to call in to see Dan Stephens at Mavunje/Mashi River Safaris just outside Kongola. We’d stayed at his place twice before and love it there and were looking forward to catching up with Dan again, having last seen him in Cape Town in January.

As it turned out, Dan was actually staying in Katima that night and suggested we meet up at his friend’s camp instead. It was on the Zambezi river’s edge and had quite the party atmosphere. From the afternoon well into the night, the locals drifted in a few at a time, the music was pumping, drinks were flowing and kapana, was cooking on the braai. (Kapana is a dish originating in the townships of Windhoek of cubed braaied meat, which is dipped in chilli and spices before eating it.) It was a bit of a change of pace for us, but it was great to see such a mix of people enjoying the chilled vibe together.

Dan, never one to keep still for long, was helping out behind the bar and DJ-ing, despite having the weekend off. It was great to catch up with him and witness his jean-splitting dance moves, although we did miss visiting his camp and the Babwata. (We’ll just have to come back again …) He also took us into Katima to show us some of the local bars and play some pool – not too unsimilar to some of the pool halls in Essex I’d say!

Luckily us oldies were reasonably sensible, so we were up the next morning to head to Zambia without much of a struggle. Despite Zambia being one of our favourite countries, this trip we were mainly transiting through. We stopped in Livingstone for a couple of nights where we caught up on a few chores. It seemed a bit strange to be there and not to be visiting the Falls, but we plan on going to the Zim side in a few weeks. We didn’t see the Zim side last year and, at this time of year when the water is lower, it’s meant to be more spectacular from there. Unfortunately the bush babies that we were looking forward to seeing at our camp, Maramba River Lodge, were no longer there. Although we were treated to an ellie across the water from us, as well as a grazing hippo in the camp on our last night. It’s strange how this doesn’t seem such an unusual or nerve-wracking occurrence anymore.

From Livingstone we were just planning on heading up to Lusaka, stocking up on a few supplies and then driving to the border. However, Dan had mentioned to us that it was getting to the right time of year for the bat migration up at Kasanka National Park, north of Lusaka. We checked out their website and the bats had been arriving early, so we decided to take a “short” detour.

After resting for the night in Lusaka, we set off on the 500+ km trip to see the bats. Each year, around the start of the rains, up to 8 million fruit bats descend on this National Park. They all roost in one area of the Mushitu Forest and just after sunset they take to the skies to feast on the musuku, mufinsa and other wild fruit that grows across the swamp. When we’d looked online, the latest count had been 1 million on 21 October. By the time we arrived, on 29 October, the count was up to 2.5 million.

That evening, after checking out our camp and enjoying a bucket shower, we headed over to the treetop hide to view the spectacle. Just as the sun was setting, we saw the first of the bats emerge from the forest. They were so big, they actually looked like large birds … until they got closer and you could see through the wings. Soon the sky was filled with bats – everywhere you looked there were thousands of them. We thought we’d got a good idea of how many there were, until we looked through the binoculars: then the density of them really hit us. For a good 20-30 mins they just kept coming. It was a spectacular and unique experience and truly exceeded our expectations. Definitely worth the detour, particularly as the likelihood of us being in this area at the right time again is pretty slim. We can’t imagine what it would be like when the full 8 million bats have arrived!

The next day, after checking out a hippo and the endemic black letchwe next to our camp, we headed back towards Lusaka, stopping just north of the city at a working farm called Fringilla. Marcello was in heaven as they had an on-sight butchery where he could stock up the freezer and even specify the thickness of the chops he wanted. We were also treated to a full display by the resident peacocks and I managed to frighten some sheep, who weren’t expecting me to start doing jumping jacks in front of them.

Whilst checking out the butcher, we also met the owner of the farm. This is another occasion where we were humbled by the generosity of those we have met on our travels. Within five minutes of talking to us, he invited us to join him and his family for the weekend at another lodge he owns across the river from Mana Pools. It was to be a “working weekend” setting up for a fishing competition they hold there, but basically all we’d need to provide was our own booze. Sadly, after much deliberation, we decided we needed to try and stick to our schedule: we didn’t think it would go down too well if we didn’t get back to Cape Town in time for Christmas! We have definitely ear-marked to come back to Zambia and pay them another visit though.

From here we drove into Lusaka and stocked up on groceries. We’d forgotten how well stocked the supermarkets were in Zambia, with far more varieties of fruit and veg as well as good quality meat on offer, so we felt a bit like kids in a sweet shop. (Ooh, mixed salad leaves rather than just iceburg!)

After filling our boots – or fridge/freezer – we drove down to the border with Zimbabwe, Chirundu, and camped at the Gwabi River Lodge. We’d noticed the temperature ramping up each kilometre closer to Zim, so we had big grins on our faces when we spied the lovely swimming pool overlooking the Zambezi. This had just been a convenient stop for us so we were close to the border for the following day, but it was a great spot. With river cruises and safaris on offer, we will certainly be adding it to our ever-increasing list of places to return to. We were also surprised to see some albino guineafowl there, something we had no idea existed until then.

Next up, our first new country, Zimbabwe …

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