A lot of the roads we travelled on in Zambia had been traversable only with a 4×4. The road from Livingstone to Lake Kariba was under construction, so most of it was two-spoor sandy roads and the drive took forever. It was also slow going from Lake Kariba to New Kalala and Kafue National Park. After that, we had a few passable tarred roads for a day or two and then it was back to driving off-road.
Basically only the Great North Road is tarred here and there, but they are working on repairing the whole highway from north to south.
We arrived at Croc Valley Camp on the border of South Luangwa National Park via a combination of off-road tracks and semi-tarred roads. Driving in the park itself was mostly only possible with a 4×4. When we wanted to leave this area to go to Mutinondo, we had three choices: driving back all the way almost to Lusaka and then taking the Great North Road, driving straight north through the park at about $100 (entry fees), or driving around it and crossing to the Great North Road with the escarpment road cutting between South and North Luangwa. We discussed it with a few people, but most of them were unsure what to recommend. The ranger at the park gate said the route around the park may take two to three days, while going straight through the park may take 6 or 7 hours. We decided that it is impossible to take three days to drive 310 km, so we opted for the scenic route. Boy, were we wrong.
So, after packing up, settling the bill, discussing possible routes with various people, and filling up with petrol, we finally set off at about 11:30. The road was quite bad and the going was slow, but we weren’t really worried. Hugo was sure we could drive the distance that afternoon, but I wasn’t convinced that it was a good idea to drive in the dark.
In the late afternoon we came across a gate, the Luambe National Park, one of many national parks. The ranger at the gate told us that the Luambe Lodge had been newly opened and that we could find a camping spot there. Well, “told us” is a very loose way of saying it ̶ it was body language and sign language with a bit of English in-between.
We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived there. The rules state that lodges, and sometimes surrounding areas, are managed by investors for periods of 15 years, after which the deals are renegotiated. This specific one was standing empty and our Tracks4Africa also indicated that it was closed. It had recently been taken over by a German investor with a passion for conservation and wildlife research. He appointed a lovely young German couple, Natalie and Sven, who were working tirelessly to get the lodge up and running before the end of the season. We were happy to hear that they had finished the campsite and ablutions just that day!
A season runs from April to October, the dry season; the rest of the time it rains and the roads are not navigable at all. The main reason is that they consist of a black, clay-like, snotty, sticky mud the locals call “black cotton” ̶ the first time I’ve ever heard that term. But let me tell you, that black cotton is equally bad in the dry season, because the mud dries with the imprints of elephant and hippo and other antelope prints in it. It makes for one bumpy ride! During the wet season, they close camp and hope to leave before the first rains.
The next morning, we were sorry to leave the camp behind. The camping was fantastic, yet again on the banks of a river, this time the Luangwa River (previously we’d camped on the Orange, Kavango, Zambezi, Kafue and other smaller rivers). In front of our tent were the most hippos we have seen together to date ̶ we reckon close to a hundred in the space of less than 200 metres.
We set a new record and left the camp before nine in the morning (it is hard to get up early on these cold winter mornings) and set off to find the pontoon to take us across the Luangwa River. It wasn’t at the point indicated by the GPS and I didn’t tell Hugo when we left that it stated it was not manned permanently, so I was panicking a bit. Some way further down the river, I spotted a few huts on the other side, so we tried to follow the faint tracks going to the pontoon. When we reached the place, the riverbed was dry for about two-thirds of its width on our side, and we crossed the soft sand to where they laid cut tree trunks as a makeshift road across some more black cotton, wet this time. I know, because I was walking on it and the next moment I broke the crust and was knee-deep in the shi… no, mud. Hugo had to stand on the bridge and pull me out, and then wash my feet and shoes in the hippo- and croc-infested water.
We were happy to spot a human being on the other side and the guy indicated that he would bring the pontoon across. This was our fourth pontoon crossing, but the first manual one. As in, you grab a cable and pull the pontoon (made of empty oil drums and wood) across. We were worried about our 5 tonnes that needed to be pulled by hand. Once he arrived, we had a further shock. The thing wasn’t able to fit both the Cruiser and the trailer. Massive bummer. The trailer weighs one and a half ton on its own and it is nearly impossible to manoeuvre it by hand. Hugo was thinking of reversing it onto the pontoon and then pushing it off on the other side, then reversing the car on, hooking the trailer once there, and then reversing out. The problem with this scenario was that the way out on the other side was a narrow road cut out of a 90-degree wall with an incline of about 30 degrees from the word go. Three of us wouldn’t have been able to push the trailer off the pontoon up that hill, not with normal human strength. Superhero? Maybe…
So, Hugo drove the Cruiser onto the pontoon with the trailer still hooked to bring it as close as possible to the pontoon for the next round. It was nerve wrecking watching the near side of the pontoon almost disappearing into the water. I was sure the whole lot was going to sink.
It didn’t. Hugo unhooked the trailer and Gustav went with him and the pontoon man to the other side with surprising ease. I guess it was because Gustav donned his father’s gloves and helped pull them across.
With the car off the pontoon and up the bank, they came back with another able body in tow. Yay! Then the fun and games started. Please bear in mind that Hugo locked the trailer’s keys in the Cruiser and didn’t bring any food or drink with him. Because it would not take too long to get the job done. Right? Wrong.
Think of all the ways you can push, pull or manoeuvre a trailer onto a pontoon. Four hours long. We’ve done that. I am so proud of my husband, who never once lost his temper and stayed patient and calm throughout the whole, horrible ordeal.
The problems seemed to be endless. The jockey wheel isn’t in the centre of the trailer. The pontoon had only two tracks going on, nothing for the jockey wheel. The trailer was very heavy, as in UNMANAGEABLY HEAVY. The tires were deflated to drive on gravel and sand. And the bloody floating little bridge thing was made of sticks and logs in odd sizes that were giving way into the water instead of supporting the trailer. It was hot hot hot with no shade, no food, no water.
Coming back from the other side, Hugo picked up some flat pieces of metal he hoped we could use as a ramp for the jockey wheel. We tried, but the problem (another one!) was that it wasn’t smooth, but had big holes and two deep grooves in it. At first, I tried to steer the wheel while the three men pushed, but I nearly let the trailer fall in the river, so I refused to be in front anymore. Another problem was that the pontoon wasn’t tied securely enough and the chains had slack in them, so the darn thing kept moving away as we pushed. It caused the trailer to go completely skew and the tyres didn’t match the ramps anymore.
We kept at it. At one stage, Gustav helped at the back and Hugo put his shoulder against the spare wheel to push, and almost crushed poor Gustav’s hand.
Later on, we tried to use logs, which were left after constructing the fairly new bridge, as leverage. Hugo would push with the log resting on his shoulder and anchored somewhere beneath the trailer and I would wedge other logs underneath the wheels. Both of us were covered in mud, grime, grease (from the pontoon cables) and tree gum (newly built bridge) at this stage. After only a few centimetres gained in three hours, we decided to call it quits, take the trailer off (it was on the pontoon by about fifty centimetres), fetch the Cruiser, reverse the whole bunch off the bridge, turn around, and reverse the trailer on…
The Cruiser couldn’t be reversed onto the pontoon. As the pontoon was floating high in the water without the car’s weight, the exhaust pipe of the car stuck into the pontoon, and even broke off some of the wood. So. We couldn’t get the trailer to the Cruiser and we couldn’t get the Cruiser to the trailer, both being on either side of the Luangwa River. This cancelled our option of backtracking on our route and making another plan to get to Mutinondo.
When Hugo came back, he at least brought water and the trailer’s keys with him. By this time, we’ve emptied the water tank in an attempt to make the trailer lighter. The children were lying under the trailer and drinking from the drain. I have to admit, so did I.
They also came up with a new plan. Empty the trailer of everything that weighs anything. Gas bottles. Generator. Tent pens. Fridge/freezer with everything inside. We left the clothes and the rest of the food. The result? Nothing. Nada. Not even a freakin’ centimetre. But. But. I spotted four men on the other side! Just what I have been hoping for the entire time. I mean, it was clear from the start that the four of us will not be able to get the trailer on the pontoon. I was actually thinking of taking only the most important things (a toothbrush, spare panties) and set fire to the whole lot.
So, Mr Pontoon Man took me and the children across, unloaded the heavy stuff we took from the trailer, and then we begged the four gentlemen to help us. I’m ashamed to admit that we went to war for four hours with the two pontoon guys, parted as best friends, and we never asked them their names. I hope they know how grateful we are for their effort and hard work, all the while staying friendly and cheerful.
They took the pontoon back across, they pushed the trailer onto the pontoon in one heave-ho!, brought the trailer, hooked it on the Cruiser, done. Just like that. Exactly four hours since we arrived on the other side. We gave all of them Kw50 each. A bargain.
When we left there at 13:30, we have covered about 10 km of the 200 km we still had to do. Our new friends thought we might be able to do it.
The road was still bad and the going was slow, between 30 and 40 km an hour, sometimes 4×4, mostly 2×4 driving, doing many water crossings. When we reached the eastern part of South Luangwa we had to cross, the ranger there told us that we would be able to do the road leading up to the escarpment in the dark. Oh, I forgot to mention it was almost dark.
If you think, like we did, that the worst part of the day was part of history, you are wrong. It had just started. We were driving up a mountain with a car, trailer and two children. It was horrible. It was the worst road Hugo and I have EVER been on, and that is saying a lot. Hugo said he thought the Cruiser was going to do a back flip at times. The children knew to keep quiet and I encouraged them to play with their iPads; they couldn’t believe their luck!
I tried to capture some of it on the GoPro, let’s hope once I get my laptop back, we can share it. The road was pure loose rocks, big rocks, loose sand. I was happy to see that the whole mountain side was covered with big trees, so we wouldn’t roll too far, should the worst happen.
After we’d zig-zagged around hair-raising hairpin bends for some time, Hugo had to stop to take a break; he was a nervous wreck! He asked me to write about his face. I said, when did he think I had a chance to looking at his face while praying, working the GoPro, making sure the children are alright and watching the road with him? I think we both almost cracked our teeth that night. We didn’t have any more water with us, again, as we couldn’t stop earlier to fill it up because of tsetse flies. They’d been bothering us for quite some time. This time, it was again impossible to fill up. Hugo jumped right back in.
We drove further and reached a plateau, and were incredibly relieved. Hugo could get out and fill up our water bottles. We saw that a ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) Scout Camp, and therefore the exit gate, weren’t too far, so we started driving again. But the horror continued. At some stage, I told Hugo that if the eggs in the trailer hadn’t all been broken, they were now scrambled (which turned out to be true, we made eggs this morning and didn’t even have to scramble them!).
After nine hours and only 109 km we arrived at the top at the Scout Camp. The people were surprised to see us. They heard a vehicle coming, but cars never come from the side we came from. It is the DOWN ROAD! They were even more surprised that we had a trailer in tow. Apparently, it is not possible, not to mention advisable. People go from North to South Luangwa and almost never the other way around. Especially with a trailer. Petronella may be 20 years old, but she, and most importantly, her driver, showed them. In the dark.
The chief insisted we camp in their little village that night. Again, we will be eternally grateful to the friendly people of Zambia.
Finally, on the third day, we made it to Mutinondo.
[Ed: I’m extremely tired and my nerves are wrecked after this post…]