Leaving South Luangwa you’ve got three options. You can go to Malawi, drive the same 600 kilometers back to Lusaka or go to North Luangwa. We decided to go for the latter since we want to visit Malawi on our ‘way back’ to South Africa. To get to North Luangwa you have to cross two national parks and several villages. If you check the route on a map it doesn’t look that complicated but by reading our ‘Bradt’ guide we learn that you need to be an experienced 4×4 driver, drive this road with preferably two cars and have enough food and water. David, the manager of Wildlife Camp said that the road is ‘doable’. We do have to cross two rivers which still have a bit of water in them but it should definitely work. As far as his information goes all other rivers are dry…
The first two river crossings
It was a Monday morning when we drove towards North Luangwa. We took a dirt road in a nearby village and the first river crossings followed a few minutes later. The routine started: get out the car, leave your flip-flops behind and check if the river isn’t too deep. A local arrived carrying lots of bread on her head and a baby on her back. If she could make it with this ‘luggage’ we would be able to do so as well. While I was checking the river Lennart bought some fresh bread from the lady that just passed the river. The only challenge was the steep sandy hill on the other side of the river. We managed to get across and also passed the second river crossing a couple of kilometers down the road.
Nsefu section of South Luangwa
After another 40 kilometers we arrived at the Nsefu section of South Luangwa. There are multiple gates to enter South Luangwa and this section lies to the east of the Luangwa river. Since you have to cross it to get to North Luangwa you don’t have to pay an entrance fee; you’re ‘in transit’. Once through the gate you can either take the main transit road or take a river loop. We opted for the river loop and had to cross a nasty little bridge to get there. This section of the park along the river is pretty as well. You cross a couple of lagoons and there is practically no one around except for two other vehicles from the camps that are situated here. Almost at the end of the river loop we came across a river that had way too much water for a proper crossing. We decide to turn around and follow another road on our GPS. Unfortunately we can’t find it anywhere and once we speak to a local ranger it turns out there used to be a pontoon but it’s gone by now. That means we have to go back to the entrance of the park, take that shitty bridge again and start over. Once we’re on the transit road we find out that this road is way worse with lots of potholes and overgrown bushes.
Every now and then we stumble upon a couple of people biking through the park with lots of food and other stuff on their bike. We were quite surprised, this is a game park after all right? Apparently this is quite common over here. The other thing that is surprising is the fact that lots of ground has been burned around the main road and that there is plenty of rubbish to be found in the park. After a while we meet a couple of guys resting after a long drive on their bikes. They asked for some fresh water which we had plenty of in our car. We’re happy once we’ve reached the other side of the park after about two hours. There isn’t that much to be seen around here so I wouldn’t drive to the Nsefu section if you’re not in transit.
Is this the road we should take?
We continue our adventure driving literally through villages. Every now and then we find ourselves driving on a steep descending road and crossing a dry river. A bit later we see a river crossing where several men are standing knee deep in the mud. One local advises us to go around the deepest part of the river and take a bit of a detour in the river. With these tips we manage to get across quite easy. At times the road can be quite a challenge and the rainy season left its marks.
I thought we’re done with these river crossings?
Forty kilometer further down the road we reach the gate of the second National park, Luambe National Park. Yet again we’re ‘in transit’ and are able to continue our journey. After the first sharp turn in the road we get to a river crossing that seems to be very very deep. ‘Was this really the main road?’ we question ourselves. The GPS indicates that this is still the D104. A couple of sand bags and some sticks should help us to get across. Since the water is blackish I don’t feel comfortable walking through it to see how deep it actually is. We take an educated guess (really bad I know) and cross the river in a slow but steady way. When we’re almost at the other side the car dips a bit more and the water touches the better part of the front side of the car. The car struggles to get enough grip but a couple of seconds later we manage to get to the other side.
Having done all these river crossing we are kind of done with it for today. However, just five kilometers further we get to another crossing. A dozen men are standing in the river, no idea why, but they tell us we can easily cross this one. We take a look at the river and decide to cross it, successfully. After all this we get to the other gate of the park. We just have to drive to the camping.
Chipuka Community Campsite
This campsite turns out to be 7 kilometers of the main road passing through an overgrown forest. For us it feels like hours to get there after driving all day. A young man named John welcomed us. In 2016 six men from the local village decided to start a community campsite at the Luangwa river. The campsite looks stunning. Everything handmade and super clean, especially if you consider where you are. They were still busy finishing up a ‘living room’ made out of grass. Other than that there was a shower, a ‘Western’ toilet and a village toilet (hole in the ground). After pitching our tent we decide to take a shower. The camp owners first had to pump water by hand and climb in the tree to fill up the large bucket. This way there is enough water and pressure to take a shower. Same thing goes if you want to go to the ‘Western’ toilet. This makes you, again, well aware of how easy living in a first world country is. As soon as the sun sets we get some firewood and they even lit it for us. What a beautiful place in the middle of nowhere.
All these villages
It’s another morning in the bush and thus we wake up early. The road starts with a lot of overgrown grass but once we’re in the forest it is getting better. Every now and then we get to a dry river crossing. At times the road crosses through a village and you’re driving in someone’s garden. Children chase the car to either wave at you or beg for some candy. It’s remarkable to see how people live in these remote places. In one village we literally drive through the main square with huts on either side of the car. Bizarre.
Chifunda Community Campsite
At noon we get to the Chifunda Community Campsite/ It’s Wild. The campsite is comfortably situated next to the pontoon we need to take and opposite to North Luangwa. The manager, pontoon man and ranger (with a gun) welcome us and again we have got this nice spot a the Luangwa. Later that day the ranger comes back to sort out all the paperwork to enter the park the next day. In Zambia everyone seems to have an invoice / permit book. One for the permit, one for the administration, another for the invoice etc. The ranger explains that he has to file a report on a weekly and monthly basis.
He also prepares us for the road that we are about to take the next day. He says the road is ‘not bad’ but that there is one problem. They got an issue with the ‘grader’ (the one to maintain the roads) and thus the roads aren’t maintained right now. We also have to take a pontoon to cross the river and since they’re breeding rhinos in the park you’re not allowed to stop in that section. It’s going to be an interesting day. Then the manager comes by “Madame, your hot shower is ready”. That sounds good.
Never going back again
We wake up with a bit of excitement in our bodies. Hopefully we’ll be just fine since we don’t want to drive all the way back to South Luangwa. When we turn on the engine the manager walks towards us with the message that ‘the pontoon man is still sleeping’. We decide to drive to the pontoon and wait for him. A couple of minutes later he arrives and Lennart drives our car onto the pontoon. The pontoon is made out of old oil barrels with some wood on top of it. Next to the pontoon a couple of hippos where floating away happily. Once the front tires of the car hit the pontoon it drops quite severe. We manage to make it to the other side and are relieved we’re there. This must have been the most nerve-racking thing we did in the last three days.
We made it
In Norht Luangwa there are several subspecies of animals that don’t tend to appear anywhere else. We ‘only’ saw the Thomson Wildebeest five minutes after we crossed the river with the pontoon. We then saw one Elephant that was charging us. This can be explained by the fact that there are still poachers active in parts of Zambia. Since 25% of the park is mountainous it means that you have to drive over the escarpment and on quite some big rocks. Moreover this park also has quite a number of river crossings. After driving for four hours we manage to make it to the other gate!!! What an experience. The special thing about this trip is all the little villages you pass along the way and the people you meet. I did ask Lennart to stop me next time I’ve got a plan like this :).