Return to Zambia

I recently returned from three weeks of vacation in Zambia and Zimbabwe. This was the first time I have been back to Zambia since I COSed in June last year. It was a bit weird at times, stuck in between feeling like a local and feeling like a tourist. Adding to this feeling was the fact that I travelled mostly to new places – Mongu, Liuwa Plain National Park and Ndola. I was on the move almost the whole time – lots of time in buses, cars and walking around trying to learn as much about these places as possible. All in all, I spent about 24 hours in Lusaka – about 18 of which I spent sleeping. According to Google Maps, I travelled nearly 2500 kilometers. I have pages and pages of notes and scribbles that will be turned into helpful tips and information for my book.

I was amazed at the changes since I left – starting with the airport. The name change is official: Lusaka International Airport is now Kenneth Kaunda International Airport. (For those of you unfamiliar with Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda served as the first president of Zambia from 1964 – 1991.) The biggest change was in the money. In January, Zambia knocked three zeroes off the kwacha and re-introduced the ngwee. The money looks mostly the same, but now the one kwacha and ngwee are coins. They also introduced a two kwacha and a hundred kwacha bill.

I started my journey around Zambia by travelling west to Mongu, the provincial capital of Western Province. I took the bus and was able to catch up on some sleep along the way. I had heard that Western Province was flat, sandy and very poor, but I was blown away by actually experiencing the area. September and October are the driest months of the year, so the sand was very deep and made traveling (even walking) difficult at times. The majority of Western Province was very thinly populated, and the infrastructure was in pretty poor shape. I stayed in Mongu one night before heading up to Kalabo to Liuwa Plain National Park.

Liuwa Plain National Park is one of Zambia’s lesser-known gems, due mostly to its hard-to-reach location. From Mongu to Kalabo, it took about two hours to drive about 60 kilometers through deep sand and bumpy roads. During the rainy season, the entire area is flooded and you have to take a boat to be able to reach the park. They are currently working on a raised road that will improve transport between Mongu and Kalabo, thus making Liuwa Plain more accessible.

I was able to get a ride with one of African Parks’ vehicles. African Parks manages the park, and has done some amazing work in the past ten years. Liuwa Plain has been a national park since 1972 – but for about a hundred years before that it was protected as the royal hunting grounds for the Lozi king. Liuwa Plain is very unique in that about 20000 people actually live in the park – mostly the descendants of the original royal gamekeepers.

Zebra and wildebeest at Liuwa Plain
Zebra and wildebeest at Liuwa Plain

Thanks to African Parks, I was able to tag along as they pulled game scouts and put new ones on duty and I was able to see a good chunk of the park. During the few hours I spent with the scout crew, we saw tons of zebra and blue wildebeest, a couple of eland and some oribi. Liuwa Plain is home to the second largest wildebeest migration in Africa in November – but even during the dry season, I saw plenty of wildebeest!

Leaving Mongu at 3:00 am the next day, we passed through Kafue National Park about 6:30 am on the way back to Lusaka. This is prime wildlife viewing hours, so we were able to see quite a few animals just driving through the park, including buffalo, hartebeest, impala, elephant and even a lion! The lion crossed the road right after we passed – an interesting sight to see a huge male lion crossing a highway. After a very brief stop in Lusaka, I continued on to Ndola.

Ndola is the commercial capital of Zambia. I never visited there during my time in Zambia because there is not much to see there. Ndola has the marks of what was once a very prosperous town – large hotels and myriad businesses, but everything looks a little run down now. I did visit the Slave Tree and the Copperbelt Museum, neither of which were particularly exciting.

The ant hill where Hammerskjold's body was found
The ant hill where Hammerskjold’s body was found

The best part of visiting Ndola was going to the Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Crash Site just outside of Ndola. Hammarskjöld was a Swedish diplomat and economist who served as the United Nation Secretary General from 1953 until his death in 1961. The memorial marks the site of the plane crash in which Hammarskjöld and fifteen others were killed just after midnight on September 18th, 1961. After his death, he was awarded the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize (he had been nominated before his death). At the time of the crash, he was on his way to the Congo Republic to negotiate a cease-fire.

The circumstances around Hammarskjöld’s death are still somewhat mysterious. Investigations by the colonial government immediately after the crash blamed pilot error for the accident. The memorial itself consists of a memorial garden with a cairn at the center with shrubs and trees on the outer circle. There is also a small shelter on top of anthill marking where Hammarskjöld’s body was found.

In Lusaka, I was able to watch the Chipolopolo World Cup qualifying match against Ghana. Unfortunately, Chipolopolo lost to the home-team Black Stars and will not qualify for the 2016 World Cup.

Victoria Falls
Aerial shot of Victoria Falls

I headed to Livingstone and had a chance to get reacquainted with Livingstone, and try a few new things as well. I did the helicopter tour of Victoria Falls – which was awesome. The other people I was slated to go on the helicopter tour with cancelled at the last minute, but luckily I was able to get on with a couple about an hour later. And even luckier, they were doing the 30 minute tour, so I got to do the whole tour for the price of the 15 minute tour. On the tour, you pass over Victoria Falls a few times, then head down into the gorge and then pass over part of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. It was amazing to see the whole scale of the falls – even in dry season!

While getting ready to cross the border from Zambia into Zimbabwe, I was robbed. I wasn’t paying attention and one of the famously cheeky baboons ripped the plastic bag I was holding from my hand – taking with him my crackers and some bracelets that I had purchased as souvenirs for people back home. This actually happens a lot – so if you visit Victoria Falls be sure to look out for the baboons.

In Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe I met up with my dad for two weeks on a hunting safari – come back for a recap of the second half of my trip!

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