Forget US Independence Day on the 4th of July. In Zambia it was a national holiday to commemorate the heroes who brought independence to Northern Rhodesia, half a century ago. There was no armed struggle. It was a peaceful transition from colonial rule. Britain had lost its appetite for an empire in Africa, demonstrated by Harold MacMillan’s “Winds of Change” speech. The 5th of July was another national holiday, Africa Freedom Day. Coupled with the weekend, I had four days off work at the clinic, so I decided to treat myself and go to a bushcamp.
Bushcamps are temporary structures used during the dry season to give tourists a real safari experience. They are inaccessible from December to April because the roads turn to mud and the rivers are impassable. Those beside the river are likely to get inundated by the swollen Luangwa. They get rebuilt every year, some as primitive camps, others as luxurious £500 per night establishments.
Although I am excused from working in the clinic, I remain on call for residents and tourists who become unwell. So I have to be within an hour’s drive of Mfuwe at all times. With just a week left on my contract, I decided to treat myself by booking in for a night at Tena Tena, a deluxe camp run by Robin Pope Safaris. As a volunteer, I got a reduced “Valley rate”. It’s an hour away, but still I had to get permission from my boss.
My plan was to use the old Mitsubishi Pajero, which I named Phyllis in 2014, as she has four wheel drive to cope with the rough tracks in the Park. I left home at 8am and within five minutes an engine warning light came on, so I checked into Flatdogs Camp Workshop, where they diagnosed low brake fluid. The mechanic topped that up and refilled the driver’s side front tyre with air (it had lost 50% pressure over the past week). I drove down the tarmac road and turned left, crossed three sandy river beds and reached the Milyoti Gate into the Nsefu Sector of the National Park.
I had been to this side of the Luangwa River two years ago, when I got lost on the Salt Pan en route to Tafika Camp. I had wangled an invitation to fly in a microlite with John Coppinger. Unfortunately, there had been a call while I was away and my boss couldn’t reach me (no cellphone coverage in the remote bush), so I got my wrist slapped. But Tena Tena had arranged for Joseph, a staff member to meet me at the gate. He’s a groundsman but aspires to become a guide, so he wanted to impress me with his bushcraft skills as we drove through the Park. Pair of hippos away from the lagoon on the left, young male leopard on the right, baby giraffe in the ebony grove. The game was prolific and I wasn’t even at the camp.
I had planned to go to the nesting site of a huge colony of yellow-billed storks after lunch, doing my own independent safari. The guide asked me about the fitness of my vehicle and agreed I could probably make it. But why would I want to see a group of dead trees coated with white guano? The storks left last month, he told me.
My phone rang. It wasn’t supposed to. I had wandered into the tiny area of the camp where there was intermittent cell phone coverage. It was an emergency, someone had malaria, I had to go. I tried to call back, but the aether refused to accept my call. I wondered about finding my way back to the Park gate, so Tena Tena offered to send a Cruiser to show me which track to take.
Most of the tracks have a deep covering of fine dust. The LandCruiser drove off, with a dense, orange cloud of dust billowing behind it. I waited until it had settled and I could see the road, but the Cruiser had vanished. I followed the tyre tracks and speeded up until I saw the cloud of dust on the other side of a dry lagoon. I managed to catch up, closed all the windows and followed as close as I dared. Tailgating is not recommended, but it was the only practical way to follow him.
I could see the red brake lights when the Cruiser slowed to negotiate a deep donga, or a ditch across the track. I was trying to memorise the roads and the turn offs, so I could get back to Tena Tena afterwards without needing a guide.
The track wound through a grove of mopani trees and the Cruiser driver seemed to enjoy throwing the large vehicle around the curves, sliding through the dust. “If he can do it, so can I,” I thought. At last we reached the last junction before the gate. “Straight ahead,” the driver said. “It must be an emergency, you were driving so fast.” “But I was just following you,” I replied. He told me that when he could not see me in his wing mirrors, he slowed down, but then he saw me driving really fast (I was trying to catch up to him). Then he could not see me in his mirrors because I was so close to him and he thought that this meant I was desperately trying to get to the emergency as quickly as I could, so he speeded up. And then I speeded up.
I passed through the gate and reached the tarmac road. I called ahead as soon as I had a signal on my phone, but could not get through. What would I do if I couldn’t get hold of the doctor? I’d go to the clinic, but it was a public holiday, so it would be closed. I drove on and reached the compound, dealt with the emergency and left, giving instructions on how to contact me via radio.
My journey back to Tena Tena was more relaxed. I was back for high tea, before the afternoon bush drive with guide Julius and a couple from Wales. Highlights of the drive: a stand-off between a leopard and a warthog mother with two hoglets, a pride of ten lions padding across the plain as the sun was setting, a courting couple of lions caught in post-coital exhaustion with a leopard trying to sneak past them in the dark.