Croc Valley and South Luangwa National Park
Crossing the border into Zambia was a quite painless affair and we continued on through the small dusty town of Chipata to turn off towards South Luangwa National Park. The road deteriorated with with every kilometre. Huge potholes were scattered all over the road, filled with the recent rain. The muddy, slippery slalom course went on for 75 kms.
Zambia has the lowest population density in Africa and we found that villages were few and far between, with none of the intensive cultivation of the land that we had found elsewhere.
Right at the entrance to the best game park in Zambia, on the banks of the Luangwa River, sat the campsite, Croc Valley. As we head south the campsites get better and better and this one was perfectly situated with terrific facilities - hot showers, internet (albeit a single slow computer with dismal internet speed), a good bar (with ICE for the drinks - we haven't had ice since we started the trip!) and a most unusual swimming pool. On the rough road into the camp we suddenly saw a herd of elephants right next to the road, and as we sat watching them, right behind them a hippo emerged from a weed-covered pool and ambled into the bush. I thought we had seen enough African wildlife on the trip not to get too excited about the sighting, but we were!
The riverbank where we camped was about four or five metres above the river level, with a steep drop-off into the river. Paths trampled by animals went from the top of the bank down to the river. Animals ... like hippos. The huge pink-brown creatures are in the habit of coming up at night to graze on grass. Sometimes they even like to have a swim in the nice, clean pool. Not too long ago, two hippos got stuck in the pool and couldn't get out, and they had to be shot. So the owner changed the pool so that the hippos could easily walk in and out of the pool; he built a new one, sloping in on all four sides at quite a steep angle. Steep angles present no problems to the hippos, but these particular humans find getting in and out a bit of a challenge!
Standing on the bank of the river, we could both hear and see hippos right in front of us. There are an estimated 19,000 hippos in this river, so it would be a rare day that one didn't see one here!
So, since hippos are considered one of the most dangerous animals inAfrica, and since they like the fresh grass around the campsite, we took in very carefully the manager's warnings about having a good look around before going for a night pee. They make a very distinctive munching, snorting, grunting noise when they graze, but when disturbed or alarmed they are utterly silent - and dangerous.
So we were kept awake half the night by munching, snorting, grunting noises that seemed to be right next to the tent. But there wasn't a single one in sight when we got up at 5 for our 6am game drive.
Martin, our local guide turned up in an open-topped, 10 seater Land Cruiser for our early morning jaunt. The park has much more dense vegetation than the other parks we have visited, and many of the roads were closed due to the wet season rain. But we drove around and saw plenty of game: herds of elephants (and one young bull that took exception to our presence, and trumpeted and flapped his ears at us), lots of brown, jumpy things like impala and a new animal for us, the puku; zebra with oxpecker birds on their backs removing ticks; yellow baboons all over the road, many with small babies clinging to their backs; a small tortoise and a big monitor lizard; and fluffy-coated waterbuck, the antelope with a white target ring around their bum. And so many beautiful and extraordinary birds.
In the late afternoon, Martin retuned to take us on a 4 hour night drive. But this time, he arrived in a bigger truck, still with all the bench seats in the back, but with a canvas roof. It had started to pelt down with tropical rain! So covered up with raingear, and with rain coming in and drenching us from the back and the sides, we headed back into the park. But it cleared up and we were treated to the evening parade of animals - we saw, even if only briefly, as nocturnal animals are notoriously shy, a lioness with two cubs, a genet which is a mongoose-sort-of-creature, a couple of scrub hares, a spotted hyena and a large porcupine crossing the road - along with the usual animals we had seen by day. As the sun set, we stopped on a rise and watched the sky catch fire. A perfect spot for a sundowner - even if it was a pineapple cordial and some peanuts...
And so back to camp, accompanied by the lights of fireflies all around and of a trillion stars overhead.