After spending a few days in Zambia‘s Liuwa Plain National Park, our route back out of the reserve to Kalabo was no less of an adventure. Taking the road less travelled, we passed small fishing villages that populate the banks of the river on the outskirts of the reserve. Strange looks and glances made us realise that the locals must not see very many vehicles. Still, they were friendly and their dogs just as crazy as the ones we’d experienced on the way in.
Having decided to avoid the pontoons on our journey to Livingstone, we proceeded on the western side of the Zambezi the following day, to a road that came with no references. Ah, but how silly we were, and how naïve of us to think that the journey would take only a few hours.
We bounced along the uneven gravel track, squinting at the GPS while trying to read the small map to figure out if we were on the right route. ‘Turn here, no go there, let’s go back. I definitely saw the road two hours ago’, were the instructions directed at Jon. Eventually we came to a screeching halt at the edge of the Southern Lueti River, its banks bulging with the recent heavy rain.
‘You can’t cross here’, said a lady from a nearby village, who was casually bathing in the croc-infested river. ‘You will have to cross further down,’ she added, pointing vaguely towards more thick bush and raging water.
Further instruction from the locals in the village confirmed we were heading in the right direction and could cross the river further afield. After two hours of wading through knee-deep, waterlogged, siff-smelling, oozing, sticky mud and trying to find a route along the high ground, we gave up and drove back to the village.
‘There’s a bridge about half an hour away, in the opposite direction, where you can cross,’ another lady from the village advised. It was 15h00, we had half a tank of diesel, empty jerry cans and no drinking water (* since 06h00). We decided that if we didn’t cross at the bridge – if we even found it – we would have to make the seven-hour journey back to Kalabo and refuel.
Half an hour up the river, after picking up an unsuspecting pedestrian to show us the way, we still couldn’t find it. The route didn’t even exist on our GPS. I was in a mild panic because we had abducted a local from the side of the road, along with his very smelly fish. I was sure we were taking him further and further away from his home and that he hadn’t actually wanted a lift THIS far. His broken English made no sense and his hand signals eventually stopped all together; even he had no idea where we were. Then, two exhausting hours later it appeared: the bridge actually existed … in bits and pieces.
With careful navigation and super-human off-road driving, we got to the other side of this beast of a river. It was then a two-hour journey back along the other side of the riverbank, parallel to where we had driven all afternoon. Eventually our captive raised his hand and hopped out, thanking us for the lift. I can’t imagine what he must have thought of us three idiots in our three-door Toyota Prado.
We made it to Sitoti, which was a bustling little village with a few shops, 11 hours after we had left Kalabo. Google maps had estimated the 192 kilometres would take us three and a half hours.
It was a six-hour journey from our overnight stop at Sioma Lodge to Livingstone. Driving slowly, holding thumbs, laughing and giving words of encouragement to the car was the only thing that got us to Livingstone without running out of fuel.
* Anecdote – the reason we had no drinking water after we left Kalabo was that my travelling companions refused to take my advice about the ‘no need to suck’ siphon pipe and instead cut our only five litre water container to make a funnel for the diesel out of the jerry cans! A sense of humour is essential at these times.