Lonely back roads to North Luangwa, Zambia

Posted on 1 December 2011

We left Nkondo Camp at the Bangweulu Wetlands Park, early on Monday morning. We cycled through neighbouring Lavushi Manda National Park without seeing a single car or any people. It was only us in the middle of an unspoiled natural forest filled with bird calls. At one point we thought we heard the call of a Ross’s Turaco. We stopped and walked into the forest, hoping to tick off this Lifer, but without success.

Where the gravel road forms a T-junction with the great North Road we met villagers for the first time. We bought freshly baked fritas, just out of the pan and still warm. We turned onto the Great North road, pedaling over many rolling hills towards Mpika. In town, we made sure to stock up our depleted food supplies. Our grocery list included 1 litre of peanut butter, honey, oats, rice, eggs, bread, Lemon Creams, Pilchard’s fish, tea, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, chinese lettuce and sugar.

We stayed over at a local guest house, Melodies Lodge, which was really clean and surprisingly well maintained. Unfortunately there were no self-catering facilities, but the manager invited us to cook our food in the restaurant’s kitchen. So we chopped onions and boiled rice side-by-side with Daniel, the head chef. The little kitchen was neatly stacked with aluminium pots and pans, spices and a bucket of water. No two knives or forks looked similar, but everything was very clean. The chefs were quite amused by our cooking methods (one-pot-travel-specialty), and probably also by the amount of food we cooked for just the two of us (we were hungry as lions). We enjoyed their good company and listened to music played over a little hand radio. Outside the kitchen, sitting on small 3-legged chairs next to a little fire, was the director of the guest house in relaxed conversation with some of the other staff. We went to our room shortly after dinner. As soon as we entered the room we were hungry again. We finished almost all the bread rolls and Lemon Creams we bought earlier the day before we jumped into bed and slept like logs.

The next morning we cycled towards North Luangwa’s Mano Gate. This was an incredibly beautiful and pleasant ride. The road was gently undulating and the scenery beautiful. Cumulus clouds filled the blue skies. Some long down hills were fantastic fun to ride. The birds were singing all the way. At one point we heard Class’s cuckoo, red-chested cuckoo and emerald cuckoo calling all at the same time. We passed a local man who gave his wife and little baby a lift on his bicycle. A crate was fixed to the carrier and served as a baby bed. We passed each other a few times, usually when one or the other was taking a break. It was very hot over midday and we took a dip in a clean mountain stream. The unique thing of Zambia is that there is hardly any traffic on these beautiful back roads.

We cycled about 1km inside North Luangwa National Park (NLNP), towards Natwange community camp, which is situated right next to the Mwaleshi river. But we were disappointed by the lack of maintenance of the facilities. The pump, toilets, showers and basins were probably sponsored by an outside donor a few years ago but almost everything was broken, dirty or not in a working order. There was no running water. There was no drinking water. We were told to wash ourselves in the river. There were no fire wood apart from the old ashes still in the fire place left by the previous campers. Despite the lack of facilities we had to pay 30 USD to camp there for the night. No discount given.

We went on a late afternoon stroll next to the river and saw Maloney’s monkeys in the tree tops. The next morning we joined George, our guide, as well as a scout, on a walk to try and spot the illusive Angola pitta. We enjoyed the walk but unfortunately the Angola pitta escaped our eyes. Shortly after the walk we were picked up and taken to Claire Lewis, who manages the introduced black rhino population in North Luangwa. Claire’s house is surrounded by the biggest Marula trees we have ever seen.

In the 1960’s, the Luangwa Valley was seen as the stronghold of the black rhino population in Zambia. There were between 500 – 2000 individuals in North Luangwa National Park alone. Unfortunately, by the mid 80’s the entire population was wiped out by poaching. NLNP started with a reintroduction programme in 2003, with the aim to establish a viable breeding population in a high security area in the park. Since 2003 twenty rhinos were reintroduced from Kruger National Park, the North West and Eastern Cape. Nine calves have already been born. Unfortunately, between late October and early November 2011, in less than 3 weeks time, the park suffered 6 natural rhino deaths. This is disastrous to the reintroduction programme. Experts from across Southern Africa brainstormed in an attempt to resolve the reasons for the deaths. You can read the press release with more details about the deaths, on the web page of the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

Many lessons have been learned since the start of the reintroduction programme in NLNP. Black rhinos are less aggressive towards their neighbours than towards complete strangers. The group of 5 rhinos that were reintroduced from Kruger Park, all came from the same area. They adapted very well in NLNP with little aggression towards each other in the new area. Where possible, ages of reintroduced males should differ considerably to minimize competition and combat over territories. Very young females (who recently left their mothers), seem to adapt much better to change and a new environment than older females with established social bonds. Four out of five rhinos that came from the Eastern Cape died. The vegetation and environment is so different between the Eastern Cape and NLNP that it was probably too difficult and stressful to adapt to the new environment.

Late afternoon we were transported to the eastern gate of North Luangwa. Although we would have loved to spend more time inside the park, Claire was worried about an upcoming storm. The black cotton clay road leading towards the gate, becomes water logged even after just a little bit of rainfall. If we did not reach the gate before the storm it was almost inevitable to get stuck somewhere along the road. During the ride we realised that North Luangwa is a park full of contrast. Where we entered on the western escarpment the vegetation was lush green and the landscape hilly. Towards the eastern side it is flat. The dry earth is covered in powdered dust. Marabou storks and even ground hornbills towered on top of skeleton trees. The drought seems to be severe. Not long before the gate we got stuck in the clay soils. Covered in mud, Hendrik managed to manoeuvre the vehicle out.

We reached the Luangwa river at dusk. The only accommodation available was at Chifunda Bushcamp (community camp), on the opposite river bank. Patrick, a camp manager, helped us to carry our luggage and bicycles through the river towards the other side. The water level was knee deep but he assured us that the water was too shallow for crocodiles. About 50m to our left several hippos were grunting in the water. It was already dark when we crossed the river. We were happy to reach dry ground safely on the other side.

But then again, we were disappointed by the lack of management in the community camp. A small rondavel was destroyed by an elephant several moons ago, but was never fixed. No running water was available, no toilets, no drinking water. Everything was dirty. We were told to go and wash in the river, but Riki asked for water to be collected for washing. We were charged 60 000 kwatchas for the night’s stay over. Hendrik did not have the right amount available and asked for change. No change was available. Hendrik asked who will bear the loss, himself or the camp. The men answered: ‘Bwana’, meaning ‘sir’. No amount of negotiation changed the fact that Hendrik had to bear the loss. Yet, the following morning early, while we were packing our stuff, the men walked over with a very neatly presented ‘Tip-box’, expecting us to give a little something. As much as we want to support the community camps, and as much as we would like to encourage other people to support it, we cannot recommend it. Both camps are beautifully situated with spectacular views. It has great potential for tourism but unfortunately they have been left to decay. On the positive side, to be woken before dawn by the grunts of hippo, the whooping call of a hyena close by, and the whoo-hu of an African wood owl made sleeping in a tent on the banks of the Luangwa river quite an amazing experience.


Natwange Community Campsite

Tel +26-0-214-370-487, email [email protected], visit the website for more information.

Chifunda Bushcamp

Visit the website for information and rates.



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