Sunday Morning~ Croc Valley Camp, South Luangwa, Zambia
July 1, 2018
I really don’t know if this is going to go today or not. The “free wifi” at this camp is free but doesn’t work. I was planning on posting some cool photos on Facebook of our first day on the road, the views at our camp, and the incredible wildlife we saw, but that little plan didn’t materialize.
We are now six days away from Blantyre, three into the trip and so far so good. Let me run down the week:
Monday was our last night in our sweet house. Catherine showed up early and fell into my arms sobbing, saying “I will miss you maamie, I will miss you.” She was wracked with sobs and it was incredibly awkward. I told her we were giving her an extra month’s pay and there would be someone coming to live in the house in September so she’d still have a job. She pulled it together enough to ask if I’d give her enough money to start a business. Said she’d rather work as a business woman. She needed two hundred thousand kwacha to set it up. (Mind you a few months ago she asked George if he’d buy her a house. He asked how much they cost and that led her to believe the answer was in the affirmative.) The business idea isn’t a bad one. She wants to sell used clothes at the market and I think she’d probably be pretty good at it, but I was miffed she waited until the night before we were leaving to bring it up. I told her that. I said I couldn’t discuss it at this late date. I was packing and trying to remember a million details we had to do before we left. It wasn’t happening. I’d spent two weeks going to the bank every day to withdraw the daily cash maximum to have enough to pay everyone what I needed to. I didn’t have an additional two hundred thousand even if I thought it was a good idea. I didn’t even feel bad about saying no. She stopped crying and went to the guard’s shelter to wait for George to get home. I thought she might try her luck with him but she didn’t, only thanked us when we gave her her pay, and an extra months pay and we said goodby when we went to bed.
I woke during the night to send an email I was obsessing about to discover the electricity was out. So no wifi. We rarely lose electricity in that house, so I was surprised, then looked outside and saw all the neighbors had their outside lights on. We have prepaid electricity and George thought he’d put enough money on it to get us through our last month but we were a few hours short. Not a big deal, but that meant I couldn’t get the administrative stuff done I’d planned. Turns out I needed all that time to pack anyway. I got out of bed when I heard a noise out back against the house and thought someone might be trying to break in. I looked outside and didn’t see anything. It was 4:30 and I was wide awake so decided to stay up and organize stuff I still had to pack. When George got up he said he wanted to go put a little more money on the meter and not leave the landlady without any power in the house. He came back an hour later and said he couldn’t get any because ESCOM (the power company) didn’t have any power so couldn’t issue any vouchers. Oh, the irony. Then he washed out a couple of towels and went to hang them on the line, thinking they’d dry before we left. He came in and said the clothesline was gone. Probably what I’d heard at 4:30; Catherine removing the clothesline.
Getting out of the house was as painless as it could be, given we were packing for a two month camping trip and a pile of stuff we wanted to ship home. We were heading to Lilongwe for three days to finish up Peace Corps chores: medical clearance, end of service reports, safety clearance etc. and set off from our sweet house only two hours later than we’d planned. I was ready to go. I am hoping to come back in 2019 for three months so didn’t have the intense sadness of maybe never seeing the place again. I was excited about our adventure and felt like I’d tied up all my loose ends pretty well, so aside from the sad scene with Catherine the night before, I was ready.
The five hour ride to Lilongwe was uneventful aside from the runaway oxcart heading toward us on the M1. At first we couldn’t tell what it was but as we got closer we could see two oxen yoked to a cart barreling along, about to cross the highway, with a guy running behind as fast as he could, trying to stop them. That could have been very exciting if we’d been a few minutes later. But we left that scene behind and carried on to our lodge, only driving about an hour in the dark (something we try not to do).
The days in Lilongwe were non-stop run around: medical exams, close the bank account, file reports, exit interviews, it took all of two full days. I was done with all my obligations (except for one report I was going to send yesterday but couldn’t with the non-existent free wifi) by four, so repacked the car to fit Chris and Sarah and their bags and went for a run. Sweet. I was feeling great. Chris and Sarah arrived from Kasungu where they’d been working on a school project, we had drinks and dinner and Friday morning just after breakfast we had the official launch to our adventure. This consisted of photos in the parking lot with the red X-Trail we’ll be living out of, and a selfie inside, and off we went, a little cramped, but not too bad and no complaints. Fortunately, Chris and Sarah had been living in uncomfortable quarters for two weeks with a questionable menu so in comparison, this was luxury.
The first stop on our trip was South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. An hour and a half from Lilongwe is the Zambian border. The border crossing took an hour and a half, mostly because of all the paperwork involved in bringing a car into another country here. Buying insurance for that country is mandatory and took some time. Other fees were involved as well and George attracted a little sidekick who walked him through it for a fee of his own. He probably cut an hour off the time there, so, worth it. In the meantime I changed Malawian kwacha on the black market for Zambian ones since Malawian kwacha are useless anywhere besides Malawi and you can’t change them at a bank. That done, back in the car and off to South Luangwa, reportedly the most amazing game park in all of southern Africa. We’d heard great stories about cat viewing there and, man oh man, we were not disappointed.
We arrived at Croc Valley Camp where I’d reserved two eco tents. We have our own camping equipment with us but Chris and Sarah don’t, so we decided the $10 per night fee was worth it for one of their tents with beds and bedding. Very simple but the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages, despite the howling wild dogs, baboons, hippos and elephants walking through camp. Crazy awesome. There was discussion about how to get to the toilets at night, which, after my DRC stint I rarely have to do, having trained my bladder to wait till morning, but George was a little concerned. Not that the toilets were a huge distance from the tent, but being eaten by a hyena the first night out wouldn’t be good. He had a makeshift plan involving empty water bottles and that worked fine. I see they are adding ensuite toilets to these tents but that construction is still in progress; I read on trip advisor the only complaint is getting to the toilets at night.
The place is set up on a bank over the Luangwa River, a wide expanse that’s only got water flowing on half of it. It’s the dry season now and I’m wondering how full it gets. We can see crocodiles sunning themselves on the sandy portion and, I swear, hundreds of hippos in pods around the water. It’s impressive. Hilariously, there is a sign that says no swimming.
Friday at 4 p.m. (our first night there) we went on the evening game drive. As we crossed the bridge over the Luangwa river we saw a herd of elephants crossing, as the guide said, “to eat mangoes in the village”. He said elephants kill more people than crocodiles around there. Another hundred meters we saw our first leopard crouching in the grass. We weren’t even in the park yet! A hundred meters behind that was a giraffe sauntering into trees. She didn’t seem too concerned about the leopard so maybe he’d already eaten. Once we got into the park which is not fenced at all, hence the free ranging of animals, it was incredibly abundant. We stopped counting all the elephants, baboons, and impala. We also saw bushbuck and puku which we’d never seen before. Of course, the cats are more exciting for us. They are quite elusive in Malawi. The only lioness we’d seen was that one in the Karoo in south Africa, but it didn’t take long Friday to find two females sleeping, having eaten a buffalo that morning. (The guide had sen them eating the kill in the morning.) Our guide, Simon, got within fifty feet of them, and impressive as they were, I thought the tree full of vultures next to them was equally spectacular. Maybe twenty of them sitting on the branches of a dead tree looking down at their meal. So cool. We saw two more leopards that evening, one not too far from where we stopped for our evening cocktail (Sobo, a horrible sweet fake juice drink, no beer!). I was a little worried that we were to close to that cat’s territory but Simon didn’t seem to have any concern. Just jumped right out of the jeep and set up the drinks. Maybe they don’t serve alcohol because of the cats. When we see one, no one can move in the vehicle. If we all stay still, the cat thinks it’s one huge animal and too big to hunt. Any inside movement signals we’re food. It’s thrilling.
George and I decided not to do the morning game drive on Saturday. We need to pace ourselves as we’ll be visiting several more parks on the trip. I spent that time writing my final report (which I couldn’t send) and running on the treadmill at the camp! There was a treadmill! Running on the road is out of the question with all the animals rummaging about, so this was perfect as I need to up my game for the marathon in November. (In a moment of insanity I put my name in the lottery for the NYC marathon and got in.) Later we drove into the village to look at some of the local businesses, one of which makes jewelry from animal snares. It’s called “Beauty from Brutality” and some of the proceeds from each sale go to anti-poaching organizations. It’s gorgeous stuff, all made by women. They pound the metal into spectacular pendants and adorn some of them with semi precious stones. The women also learned to carve wooden beads and the result is really gorgeous. This stuff was many notches up from the jewelry my women’s group was making, but it got my wheels turning.
On the game drive last night we were well into the park before we saw anything and I thought maybe our luck had run out the night before (three leopards!) when Simon abruptly stopped the vehicle, turned off the engine and said, “Don’t move!” as a leopard came walking directly toward us. I mean, right at us. Sauntering along, looking menacing and eying the vehicle. I was holding my breath trying to take a photo without moving, grateful there were no children in the car (I immediately added five years to the date I thought I’d take my grandchildren on one of these), as he walked about three feet along the side of the vehicle. Oh my God. We were all frozen with our iPhones on video mode. As he passed behind the jeep, Simon started the engine and turned around to follow him but he went off into the bush. That was just the beginning of the most exciting game drive ever. We saw a pride of lions sleeping in piles, apparently still full from their kill, the two males sleeping together in one heap and the females and cubs in two other piles. We watched them sleep for awhile then explored other areas of the park. Later as we headed back, Simon pulled over again as the entire pride of lions walked toward us, females in front (the hunters), cubs and one lame female behind, and the two males bringing up the rear. It was spectacular. I cant imagine beating that scene, the recently set sun making the horizon pink, the dusty landscape stretching out for miles and this pride of magnificent animals slowly walking off into the sunset in all their glory. Wow.
Today is the longest drive of the trip, nine hours to get to Lusaka. Then tomorrow another seven to Victoria falls! Woohoo!
I’ll hopefully be able to post this from the lodge in Lusaka, though I find not having internet has brought my anxiety level down. I’m so full of gratitude to be able to do this.
Love to all,