It was my first time in Zambia, so I decided to cross the border at Kazungula, the closest border post from Botswana to Zambia from Livingstone without crossing through Zimbabwe nor Namibia. On the Botswana side the formalities are very quick. Now I pass all the trucks queuing on the side of the road and a man signs me to embark on the pontoon... and this is where the Zambia story starts...
First there is a bunch of young guys that want to assist me for the ferry, the border formalities and of course to change money. I know their tricks as I have crossed more than 50 borders by road during our 4-year expedition through Africa in 1994-98. The secret is simple : keep cool, be nice and have - or at least pretend - that you have plenty of time. And here it also worked!
I really don't mind to pay a fair commission to a dedicated honest person... but I hate crooks!
First I didn't had any Zambian Kwatcha, neither even known the official rate - it's always like that when I leave in a rush! Fortunately Petra was quick to reply to my forex request via SMS!
So when they said that I had to pay 134000 kwatcha for the ferry, I thought this is not possible! In fact it happened to be true... it is quite expensive! At a rate of 620 ZKW for 1 ZAR, it's more than ZAR 215 just to cross the Zambezi river. OK it is a big car and a big river but the ferry is also very old! Locals pay less than a third of that! Another country that believes that all foreigners are richer than all their citizens including those who can afford a car... may-be... Any-way this is hard for the wallet!
Now I am in the no-man's-land, entering the Zambian offices at the border. They must be more than 200 trucks, pickups, bakkies and cars parked on the sandy ground in front of the buildings, and may-be 300 people around these offices. So it is difficult to know what to do and where to start...
But remember the advise "be nice and cool" and there will always be some nice guy or woman to help you. James is the one to help me here. It is pretty simple he says... "you go there with all your papers, then you go to carbon tax to pay 200000 ZKW, then you go to road tax to pay 20000 ZKW and after you go to police to pay another tax of 20 USD and finally you get the compulsory extra third party insurance (even if you have one) for an amount which does not seem very defined. At first they wanted more than 250000 ZKW and at the end of a long discussion, I managed to pay 'only' 116000 ZKW. In total - including the ferry - I had to pay James the equivalent of over a million kwatcha!
And on top of that, as a Belgian citizen, I needed a visa of 50 USD.
All that would have been pretty easy and quick if I had the registration paper of the car with me! ...but I didn't as I never had to show that document at any border crossing before. So here I am in the office of the director of customs - the only office with air conditioning, waiting for Josiah to found the document in my office in Gordon's Bay, scan it and email it to them.
We don't really know what happened but that email never arrived. While I was waiting, I told the director that I was going to take photos in Liuwa Plain National Park for African-Parks, meaning the Zambian government in some way... And when I gave him my business card and he noticed that I was a doctor, he was ready to help without the official document of the car. It is true that the Zambian people are very nice, even the custom officers!
So the border crossing took almost 3 hours but then I was officially in Zambia... YES!
From the border post, I drove north to Sesheke leaving the road going south to Livingstone. The M10 tar road has serious potholes that oblige the driver for constant attention. The road crosses over the Zambezi again, on the long concrete bridge after Sesheke. This is where I would have ended up if I had crossed at Katima Molilo from Namibia. I will cross here on the way back.
The road continues north on the left side of the Zambezi, at first it's a wonderful new tar road but soon replaced by the bumpy side road along the new road in construction by the Chinese. When the road left the construction works, it was slower but so much nicer, and passing through picturesque traditional villages along the Zambezi. I stopped for the night before Sioma, went right into the bush and camped along the Zambezi. It was a wonderful evening and for the first time since I left, I took my cameras out of the bag.
The next morning, when I arrived at Sitoti, an old man was fixing the engine of the pontoon... an opportunity for a few shots, especially of the children who were getting too much excited in front of the camera. This was the third time I crossed the Zambezi.
On the other side the road was at first very sandy and bumpy, but oh surprise, it changed to a decent tar road for the last 80 km until Mongu.
Mongu is a small city with an OK supermarket with very cheap free range beef fillet and a decent choice of fresh fruits and vegetables, and you can even pay with plastic! There are also several banks and ATMs, so I could finally get some Kwatcha. I also bought a sim card from MTN/ZamTel to put in the modem-dongle I got in Madagascar.
On my phone, I requested MTN rooming for SMS only. Remember that you have to do it BEFORE leaving South Africa, and not 5 km AFTER crossing the border into Botswana forcing me to turn around until I could get the South African signal again.
So now I have internet and SMS, but no phone, except skype phone which worked really great with the 3G connection in Mongu and even in Kalabu!
Soon after leaving Mongu for Kalabu, the tar changes quickly to a deep sandy track until it reaches the pontoon to cross the Zambezi river again... for the fourth time. Everywhere it is the same official price : 4x4 foreign vehicle costs 150000 kwatcha!
The sand is even deeper on this side. For the first time I had to put in 4-wheel drive by blocking the central differential, and deflate the tyres down to 2 bars. I was also very kind to pull out the bakkie of the malaria team who was stucked in deep sand.
After crossing the plains which are completely flooded in the wet season, I was surprised again by a decent narrow tar road to lead us to Kalabu where African-Parks has the park office.
Along the road I noticed some piles of stones... at first I thought they were some kind of iron minerals, but in fact they are just stones. A very rare commodity that people digg out of the ground - only at one small area - and sell to local builders.
Raquel is Liuwa Plain park manager. She is portuguese and really nice. She warmly welcomed me and offered me to stay in the house. Richard who is in charge of the fisheries programme in the area prepared a really tasteful dinner for all of us. And of course I tasted the local beer, the Lozi... not as good of a Belgian Hoegaarden or even a Windhoek lager, but very refreshing.
The next morning while the workshop manager was slowly filling my huge tanks with 9 20 l jerrycans of petrol, I made my real first contact with the Zambezi people. A lot was happening that morning along the Loeti river.
This time, there was no engine on the pontoon, but only my own manpower together with the other passengers on board to pull us on the other side.
Now I am finally in the park, driving to Matamanene camp which is 39 km north-west of Kalabu. The journey takes almost 2 hours to drive up to there.
When we arrived at the camp and at my great surprise, Craig, the operation manager, showed me my tent and the main building where meals are served and computers can be charged. What a luxury, I will not have to set-up the roof-top tent every evening! What a relief!
When I am on a photographic assignement like this one, I often work from 4:30 until 9:30, as I want to capture the best lights early morning and late afternoon, and for that I need to be on location well before sunrise and well after sunset.
Liuwa Plain is in fact a pleonasm as Liuwa means 'plain' in Lozi... so the name says it all... 'Plain Plain' and believe me it's really flat! The highest point is a 3 m little hill with a little tree on which if you are lucky you can get the best cellphone reception in the park, and if you are extremely lucky check your emails!
African Parks manages this oldest national park in Africa since 2004, which hosts 3500 Lozi people living in villages within the boundaries of the park and another 17000 people in the wider game-management area. In my opinion, this is the way every park with a native human population should integrate people and wildlife... but this is definitely much more challenging than simply fencing the park and chasing people out.
People living in the villages have hereditary rights to the park resource which includes fishing in pools left over when the rivers dry up. There is only one pool where local people can not fish : king's pool which is also the site chosen together by the King and the Queen of the Lozi people and African Parks to build a 5-star lodge in the adjacent woodland area.
The 3662 km2 of near-treeless plains get flooded during the rainy season when the rivers expand and the water table rises up, around end of November and December. A very interesting vegetation has adapted to the flood as well as to the frequent bush fires : the underground forest composed by sufrutex tree species. This unique vegetation is remarquable in some area of the parks where it looks like an English garden with islands of bushes and isolated trees in between which the lawn has been carefully mowed.
The park became also famous from the highly acclaimed documentary from Herbert Brauer on Lady Liuwa, the Last Lioness, who survived the poaching era in the late 90's. For a good company, but especially in order to increase the lion population in the park, 2 male lions were introduced in 2009, as well as 2 females in 2011. Unfortunately one male decided to immigrate to Angola and one lioness was killed by a poacher trap. The 2 survivors have now made friends with Lady and are often seen hunting, feeding and resting together.
Liuwa claims 42000 wildebeests, the second largest population in Africa after the Serengeti. The migration of wildebeests probably going through Angola could even justify the creation of a new transfrontier park.
This will soon be confirmed by the team of researchers from the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) who has collared 50 of them. ZCP is also studying all the predators in the park, including the 3 lions, many hyenas, different packs of wild dogs and a good number of cheetahs.
Most of the visitors are from South Africa either coming with their own cars, or via Robin Pope Safari who has exclusive rights on Matamanene camp during the touristic season (mid-Nov to April-May).
I was very privilege to stay 17 days in the park which allowed me plenty of time to really appreciate its uniqueness and its real wilderness. Imagine following 5 cheetahs hunting oribis and at the same time see the 3 lions hunting wildebeests as well as a pack of 20 wilddogs chasing another big herd of wildebeests... imagine watching with a naked eye this multiple hunting game from the roof of your car! This is magic... this is wild Africa.
This first story which is more a travel report is only to give you the taste of Liuwa. I will soon write more about the wildebeests, the wild dogs, lady Liuwa, the sufrutex underground forest and the Lozi people living in the park... and of course with many more photos from the ground as well as from the air...