Flying to Tafika
So we are packing up at the Kapisha Hot Springs ready for our next leg. This is where we leave the Fatties. There is some confusion in the Mark Harvey Zambian Safari Office in Lusaka about which airport we go too next -- they don't seem very good about airports. Grant spends all morning on the radio. It seems we are going to Mfuwe (a proper airport) -- we thought we were going to a small airstrip.
The little single-engine plane comes swooping in low over the grass landing strip at Shiwa, It seems most of the kids come out to watch us off. A plane landing at the airstrip is a big occasion for them. About 25 of them charge down to the grass with their school books in plastic bags. Kim takes their photograph and they shriek with delight. The pilot asks which of us is going to Lukusi ? "We are all going to Mfwue," we reply . Grant having been told this by Mark Harvey's office.
"That's odd," he says. "I'm sure I've got two landings." This was Marks final coup de grace cock up goodbye present to us.
We squeeze in to the little six seater. Mr. Fatty has to sit in the co-pilots seat to put some weight at the front. I have to sit next to Mrs. Fatty and Kim lounges in the back. We charge down the grass strip and away we go. My first flight in a little plane. It's fantastically exciting for me. On the 30 min. flight to Mfwue you can see the new and old oxbows of the rivers. We come in to land at Mfwue airport, wow a tarmac runway!. After what Bruce our pilot describes as a "rubbish" landing, it didn't seem that bad to me, we unload and of course there is no one from Tafika, our next camp, waiting to pick us up.
The person meeting the Fatties says, "Oh no," Tafika should be waiting for you at Lukusi strip. She goes away gets on the radio to Tafika, and sure enough, that's where they are waiting for us. So Kim and I are hustled away to get on the plane again for the 10 min. flight back to Lukusi. Thankfully we are also hustled through the polite but non-address-swopping goodbyes to the FP's.
We bump down onto the tiny dirt airstrip at Lukusi and Bruce manages
to get us stuck in a old Hippo hole as he turns round at the end of the
strip. A landcruiser and Bryan are there to meet us. After welcoming us
he says, "Did you see the warthogs who ran across the strip just as
you were coming in to land?"
The Bend in the River
Tafika camp was a revelation. This is how it should be done. Sitting on a majestic sweep of the river were 5 big high roofed thatched houses with reed walls open to the air at the ends. At the back of each house is a open air reed enclosure for the shower and a covered one for the flush toilet. Hot showers! The water comes from a little wood burning boiler sitting 25 yard back from each house.
Everything is made of reeds so you get wonderfully organically flowing shapes. The attention to detail is fantastic. John Coppinger who owns this place clearly knows what he is doing. We are told to expect the hippos to come and graze on the grass by the houses at night.
Time to unpack and have a drink then it's off for our first Zambian night drive. It gets very cold out there in the evening sitting up on a open Land Cruiser, so it's jumpers and big coats for later. The hand-held spotlight soon picks out 2 lots of leopard, one pair trying to stalk a herd of Pukus in a river bed. Another pair we came across on the road were only 25 yards away. We also saw civets, genets and hyena. Not bad on night one!
We are the only guests in the camp tonight, tomorrow a Malawian tobacco dealer treating his buyers from Germany and Switzerland to a freebie are arriving. But tonight we have the place to ourselves. There is no electricity here, just hurricane lamps set outside each little house. Dinner is in the open area. Good food, grown in their garden round the back. Interesting conversation with John and his wife about the good and bad aspects of aid programmes in Africa. They have a very good set up here, employing and helping a number of local people. They teach their two daughters (7 and 9) themselves. Soon they will have to decide whether to send them away to boarding school. As it gets colder, we go off to bed, both agreeing that it's very nice not to have the FP's boring you to death at dinner any more.
Kim had said to me when she spotted the microlight optional extra at Tafika, "I suppose you want to do that."
"Yes," I replied, "Without a doubt." So, it's hands up when John asks if we went to take the flight. "I'm very keen, count me in," I say.
The blast hurtling down the runway at 7 am is incredible as I sit behind John on this tiny, Leonardo-like flying machine. You may only be doing 30 mph but because you are so exposed it seems like you are doing 300 mph. Then you are off the ground banking and climbing. It is just like a dream. Just zipping through the air looking down on the world. This was the most perfect, certainly the most purist form of seat-of-the pants flying. Just make sure there is nothing in your pants, like keys, to fall out and crash into the propeller behind you.
We climbed up passing into the layers of warm air. As we climb out over the river we spot a herd of elephants crossing. 20 or so, a large family collection of mothers and babies. John says they are probably on their way back from raiding the locals fields. Swooping down and around them is a magnificent sight. We float above the oxbows of the Luangwa river. We spot giraffe and buffalo, millions of hippo. Then we swoop down and round a bend in the river and do a fly by of the camp to impress Kim and the others who are now up for breakfast. It seems you are only a few feet from the water. Of course you are not. We bank round and land.
Ecstatic, I go for breakfast. Next fun activity is a walking trip over the river. We join our guide Stephen (local Zambian), Isaac, an inscrutable Zambian park warden who walks in front of us with a rifle. And Brighton, who in a green boilersuit, follows us and carries a large rucksack. We walk off in single file, we pass trees full of green and red love birds (parrots). There are frequent stops to explain the flora and fauna, to examine droppings and hoof and paw marks. We reach the river and paddle across it in a canoe. An hour's walk brings lots of Pukus. Then we stop under a tree on a sand bank of an old oxbow. There we see two elephants on the other bank. A big troupe of baboons is over to our left.
Meanwhile, Brighton's rucksack is unpacked to show tea and coffee making equipment and cakes. Plus firesticks. Brighton gives us an exhibition of how to light a fire using firesticks. Basically it's very easy. First you get your stick, straight and from a certain kind of tree where the wood is fairly hard.
Then you get your spark producing bit, which is about six inches long by two inches wide and an inch deep. This has notches you have cut down the side and a little hole started at the top of the notch. This stick is a soft wood. You then gather up some dried elephant dung, make a little pile with it. Put the spark wood down on it. Put a pinch of sand in the little hole at the top of the notch (for friction) put the stick in a twist it with the palms. After a short while you get a ember from the spark bit, this drops down onto the dried elephant dung, you pick this little pile up and blow on it till it catches fire then you put it on the prepared fireplace wood, pile on some more grass and then wood, and you have a lovely fire to boil the water on.
We watch the large troupe of baboons including lots of mothers and babies watching us watching them. They have scouts checking out the perimeters of the group. They cross the dry river bed carefully and then stop to watch us, sitting on the dried wood. The elephants and the baboons move on, and after a while Brighton packs up the tea stuff and it's a walk back to the river. We are back at camp after about 3 hours tired but exhilarated.
After lunch I pass on the late afternoon drive, saying I'm too tired. So I sit out in the sun and start to catch up on the journal. I'm looking at some hippos lazing in the late afternoon sun over on the other bank. And I fancy doing some drawing, something I have not really done since Art College. So I drew the hippos, then the river , then the hut, then the view out of the hut. I really enjoyed myself. It was a revelation that I could draw at all, let alone after all this time. So I have discovered a new thing.
Kim comes back from the drive, bubbling over about seeing a whole pride of lions sitting in the road. It had been a fairly quiet drive. Drinks at the saltpan, watching the sun set. Then coming back in the dark, a few hyena. But then driving back on the dirt road through the mopane wood -- six lions! A big male, two females and three cubs, They stopped about 12 feet from them. The cubs blinked their green eyes in the spotlight. The male moved away from the road. But a female and one of the cubs got up, stretched and then settled down to sleep right across the small dirt road. They couldn't drive between the female and the rest of the pride, so they had to skirt around them through the bush. Kim said she passed within six feet of the female.
Kim goes microlighting the next morning. She enjoys it immensely. I stand waving on the river bank as she does the fly past.
Today we are off to Mwaleshi camp in North Luangwa -- the really untouched part of Zambia! We were supposed to be there yesterday. But at this camp, which they have to take down and re-build every year, the river has been too high to cross recently. You can only get there in Winter (the dry season). Because they couldn't get across the river until a few weeks ago, they are two weeks behind schedule in construction, So we have to wait a extra day.
At 8 am we set off with our driver, Rod, in a open vintage (70's) land cruiser loaded up with stores and cool boxes and everything we will need including a .45 Rifle lying behind the front seats. We stop to see a local sight of historical interest: the grave of an elephant hunter killed in the Twenties. But then we have push start the cruiser to get it going. Not a very auspicious start. We bump along for a few hours through Mopane forests, down great dips and across rivers.
One time we stopped for drinks. But when Rod turns on the ignition nothing happens except a load of smoke starts to bellow out from under the bonnet. "Oh, no," I think, "What a place to catch fire". I just nip round and open the bonnet. We both look down and see burnt and frazzled wiring. I quickly disconnect the wire that was burning while Rod sees where it goes, it seems it went to the indicators. "Think I'll manage without them" said Rod. The electrical short circuit sorted, the engine started first time.
Rod is a good guide doesn't talk too much, but does point out the interesting things. He is about 33, old school, classless upper class. Educated in Scotland, Parents lived in Zambia, now Luxembourg. Mitigated by reading politics at Southampton and with a real love for Zambia and its people.
Into the Luambi National Park. Fill in the book at the gate (sorry, wooden pole and hut). The first part of the park is a huge almost green plain, doted with eland, puku and impala. With the glinting river running through it, a scene so tranquil it seems unreal. Then we start to get into woodland. It's weird, it almost looks like a autumnal English landscape, red and brown leaves everywhere. You could be driving through Richmond Park. Except that you don't get swarms of malevolent tsetse flies in Richmond park. These were little evil little buggers, you would drive through bands of them, they were everywhere on you, they would bite anywhere and produced really bad bites, Kim got her ankles chewed to death by them. No known insect repellent would work on them. Eventually we get out of their area of operations.
By the fifth hour, the driving had become mesmerizing. It was like tripping. Sitting in the front, it was like riding a motor bike, hanging into corners and going with the flow and dancing with the bumps. Eventually we reach the river. We wait for Bryan to come and pick us up in the Uni-Mog, which is a four wheel drive small lorry thing that was made by Mercedes Benz for the West German army. It's the only thing that will get over the river, as the water is still too high for the Land Cruisers.
Rod spots a lion on the other bank, just as the Mog heaves into sight on the other side and drives right by it. The Mog ploughs through the river and charges up the bank to us. It disgorges its complement of local guys who have been building the camp -- thatchers and reedcutters. We transfer our stuff into the Mog and the workers take the Toyota. Off we go across the river in the open topped vehicle. Up onto the other bank we crash through bushes and grasses. It seems this is a temporary route, The normal route is out because the river is too high at the regular crossing point even for the Mog.
We get to the North Luangwa park gate (pole and small hut). Bryan goes off to do the inevitable paper work. There is a lot of talk on the radio -- and the park guard gets twitchy. It seems the guard who should be coming with us and goes under the name Robert Orbit, has nipped off to a village (somewhere) for some tobacco. Another guy gets in carrying a well worn AK47. He sits down next to us, we exchange pleasantries. He sits with the gun in between his knees, the barrel pointing to his chest. As we bump harshly over the very rutty road, Kim says to me, "Why has he got the gun pointing at him?"
"Would you rather he pointed it at us?" I enquired, as we hit another big bump and the gun jarred against the floor. I hoped he had the safety on.
I for one was very glad to see Mwaleshi camp heave into sight. And it was a very pretty sight indeed, Sitting on another fantastic bend in the clear blue Mwaleshi river.
It was in the same reed and thatch style of Tafika but much smaller. It also had an open area overlooking the river for eating and sitting, and two huts and the shower finished, plus the flush toilet that Brian showed us, fed by a 50 gal oil drum water tank on a tower behind it. It's all so pretty and basic. The huts are a frame work of tree trunks and branches. Lateral strips of thin branches tied together by reeds, a reed wall and thatch roof, all held together by more reeds. The ground is bare compacted earth covered with reed mats. Because the houses (rooms) are all constructed with reeds you get very gentle flowing shapes, like the "en suite" washroom, basically a semicircular area at the end of the hut next to the front door. A shelf had been constructed, again with reeds, on which sat a water jug and basin. The water jug is filled every morning with hot water through a little flap cut into the wall. The bed sat on Y-shaped branches sunk into the floor.
The shower is down on the river bank. Flowing circles of reed walls create a shower and "dressing area". Another 50 gal oil drum provided the tank for the hot water, filled by the guys who decanted it from another oil drum sitting over a hole in the ground and with a fire underneath. Water from the river was dragged up in a bucket for this. Fantastic to have a shower under the stars and what a view.
The routine here was pretty much the same everyday. Our first day was get up at 6.15-ish. See what animals have been through the camp in the night, hyenas mainly, have breakfast. Then set out for a walk in the bush. Orbit our guard, having returned chastised from the village, always set a cracking pace. We went through Reeds and Mopane trees and huge clumps of Mopane bushes, Bryan explaining things as we went. We spot the head of a recently killed Buffalo. Bryan shows us dried croc droppings which are like chalk because of all the calcium in the bones of the victims they devour. And you can use them for writing. We take off our boots and socks and wade across the river. Hopefully no crocs in this bit.
Coffee and cakes by a lagoon, lots of birds but not much animal life. Back along the other side of the river, saw lots of things like Warthogs. Then back across the river at the camp. Back by 11-11.30. Lunch, Then tea/coffee and cakes at 3.30 then another trek till 6.30-7-ish. The cakes were even more delicious by the fact they were cooked in a hole in the ground, as was all the food here.
Pattison, the chef, proudly showed us where he baked his bread and cakes, it was indeed a hole in the ground heated up with a fire, then the wood removed and just embers left in, then he puts in what he wants to bake, puts a metal sheet over the top and leaves it. All the food we ate was cooked on another hole with a metal sheet over it. Amazing, the food was fantastic. Pattison was a grizzled 44 year old who was described by Bryan as "a bit of a character," but he was a fantastic cook, working wonders.
Bryan himself was a Kiwi, who had stopped off in South Africa 20 years ago on his way back to New Zealand from England. And had stopped there. He had been in Zambia for 9 years .
Lawrence was the co-chef and table waiter, a personable young guy who did different complicated napkin arrangements every night.
ZoZo was a very important man, he kept the Mog running. A quiet older guy who always wore green overalls and baseball cap, he was the mechanic. At the moment he was being taxed by a broken starter motor on the Mog. This meant they had to push start it, which being a diesel was not easy. However at night they always parked it backed up a large termite mound. So they had a bit of momentum to get going with. The fault was worn out brushes, nothing could be done to bodge it up. So they had to radio out to Tafika to get them to order up some new ones from South Africa!.
Chosy was the tea maker and room attendant, another quiet guy.
Because the staff quarters were not built, all the guys slept around the kitchen fire. They did the washing up in a old tin bath. They themselves preferred to wash in the river.
Our evening walk was down the river, spotting lots of birds again, and various antelopes, we come across a large herd of Buffalo. They quickly exited stage right at our approach -- except one old Bull, who hung around a bit. Shoes off and across the river here. Back along the sand banks, an incredible sunset is in front of us. We get to bend in the river were the camp is just as darkness sets in, and there sitting in the middle of the river are some chairs, a hurricane lamp and a cool box. Sitting down in the shallow water we eat home-made cheese straws, gobble freshly roasted peanuts and drink a very welcome cold beer.
But sadly our three days at this wonderful place had to end. 6.30 in the morning we load up the Mog and head for the park gate. We are also carrying Lawrence and Pattison and a young guy called Stuart who has hurt his arm while cutting reeds for the huts at Mwelshi. He is a bit spooked by the fact that one of the team of reed cutters had died this week, the day after getting a snake bite. "Probably a mamba," Bryan commented. "If it was a puff adder, you wouldn't die so soon".
After a final plunge through the hippo's in the river we are dropping off Lawrence and Pattison. To go and get supplies "at the village." I suppose they will wait till Bryan gets back to pick them up. After a few hours bumping along, suddenly there is another vehicle in front of us. It is Rod in the cruiser.
We transfer the contents of the cruiser, Oil drums full of diesel, cases of drinks, cool boxes of food into the Mog. We say goodbye, it is very sad for us to leave these all these people who in three short days have become our friends.
After an hour or so, we get a puncture, which I have great fun in helping change the wheel. Then through the mesmerising hours of bumpy driving. At about 2 pm we are back at Tafika, where we are greeted like old friends. They have given us the 'Honeymoon suite' a great cathedral of a hut built round and through a tree, with a DOUBLE BED.
I'm ready for the night drive, I'm desperate to see a lion, this is the one animal that has eluded me so far in Africa. John and Stephen try their best to find one for me, they hear the alarm calls of pukus down by the riverbed so we drive down and check them out, We see them looking at some grass bushes back up on the road , so we drive back and stop where they were looking. Suddenly Stephen says, "Leopard."
There behind us just 1o yards feet away is a young jumpy leopard watching us. We sit there and watch him for at least 15 mins., he stalks us in the bushes, then comes out into the open, only 10 feet away, suddenly haunches, snorts and bangs his tail on the ground. Then yawns and lies down. Obviously a very confused leopard. Not sure to be bored with us or unhappy. After a while we move on, that was a great experience. John was impressed with it as well, he said he had never seen a leopard behave like that. Beer and sandwiches by pods of hippo on the river. (A pod is the collective name for a load of hippos). But no lion.
Our last morning in Africa. Early morning drive. It was a struggle to get up, I didn't remember being that bad and grumpy, but Kim says I was. This morning the spirit was sort of willing, the flesh was very weak.
Hit the road, cruise on down by the river bank. We are sitting there looking at a Monitor lizard warming him self on a branch in the fallen tree in the river. Gazing idly at the crocs and pods of hippos. Rod says "There is a lion over there," and sure enough on the other riverbank is a lion sunning itself in the grass. Well I am relieved. At last I've seen a lion. I'm a happy bunny now.
Onward and forwards, then a load of vultures circling attracts Rods attention. As we get closer we see dozens of various kind of vultures sitting in all the trees. On the ground more are squabbling over chunks of red meat. Looks like a very recent fatality among the animal kingdom. We creep closer in the cruiser, there under a bush is a lion, we are not more than 25 yrds away. He looks at us indifferently. Obviously what the vultures are greedily gobbling up and fighting over has been his breakfast. Road says, "There's probably another one in there". I look and there is the shape of another one. We creep round the back of the bush and sure enough there's another one and the remains of a side of buffalo. We sit and watch them for a while then gently move off. I could not expect anything more from my lion encounters. This was tops.
Thoroughly satisfied. Or satiated (like the lions) we hit the track again. Suddenly, Rod spots a leopard under a tree miles away. These guys must have incredible eyesight, I do not know how they can spot these little shapes hidden away.
We watch it for a while through the bi-nocs. Then creep in closer. The leopard suddenly disappears then reappears up the tree. Looking down at us, we move in a bit closer. The leopard settles down on the branch and ignores us, with it's legs hanging down and having a good lick. What a sight. We have been incredibly lucky with our leopards. At camp they are calling us the Leopard people!.
So it's farewell Tafika and Zambia. The two-and-a-half-hour drive to Mfwue is entertaining as always. Then it's to meet our friendly pilot, Bruce to take us to Salima in Malawi
We had had a fantastic time in Zambia it has exceeded all our expectations.
Now it was time to chill out by Lake Malawi.