Words and pictures by Stephen Cunliffe.
When five wilderness-craving boys between the ages of 24 and 64 embarked on a reconnaissance of the seldom-explored Sisheke Chiefdom in southwest Zambia, Stephen Cunliffe was anticipating a great adventure. The fragile wildlands of Sioma Ngwezi National Park and the ferocious tigers of the Upper Zambezi didn’t disappoint our intrepid explorers.
Our tyres churned through the soft sand as we raced the setting sun. With an hour to find our Katuli Pools wilderness campsite, we forged ahead, guided by nothing more than a GPS waypoint and our noses. Phil was putting our Cruiser through its paces along an old sandy tweespoor track. Sliding the vehicle around a sharp bend, we came to a sudden, shuddering standstill. I looked up from the GPS to see our route blocked; curious canids littered the road ahead!
To hell with the setting sun. There was no way any sane lover of wildlife would even contemplate moving on from one of Africa’s rarest sightings: an inquisitive pack of endangered Wild Dogs. A couple of the adults came over to investigate the vehicles, while six pups – having quite likely never seen people or vehicles before – scampered around behind them. This epic canine encounter was a good omen, and set the tone for our much-anticipated exploration of the seldom-visited Katuli Pools area adjacent to Sioma Ngwezi National Park.
A couple of days earlier, when we had reached Kongola on the Trans-Caprivi Highway, we had decided to test out the new Singalamwe border post that we’d heard was open alongside the Kwando River. Turning off the tarred road shortly after the police check-point, our 2-vehicle convoy travelled north along a recently constructed all-weather road towards the Namibia-Zambia frontier. However, when the new road abruptly terminated in the middle of nowhere, we had to retreat in order to source local information about Namibian exit formalities. After backtracking 17 kilometres, and with the assistance of some friendly locals, we eventually located the Namibian ‘immigration table’ perched under a shady tree overlooking the meandering river!
In contrast, the Zambian side sported some freshlypainted, fancy-looking immigration offices, but no road yet. So it came as no real surprise when we later learnt that we were, in fact, the first international visitors to make use of the new KAZA tourist facility, which had only opened a month before. But, far from being a frustrating experience, unravelling the mysteries of Singalamwe proved an enjoyable and entertaining adventure in itself.
With a smile and a flamboyant salute, the gate guard removed the pole blocking the sandy track into Zambia, allowing us to enter Sioma Ngwezi National Park in the south of the Sisheke Chiefdom. Fortuitously situated in the central northern sector of the recently created 444 000 km² Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), the Chiefdom’s prime location within Africa’s largest conservation area makes it a vital link in the old animal migration routes between Chobe National Park in Botswana and Kafue National Park in Zambia. We had heard that excessive human settlement along the Kwando River, and a lack of water in the east of the park, had pushed most of the surviving wildlife to the grassy plains in the northwest of the park; so we decided that that was where we should base ourselves for the coming days.
Sioma Ngwezi National Park has been neglected for decades. Having long been the refuge and larder for a succession of guerrilla armies fighting bush wars in neighbouring Namibia and Angola, it seemed remarkable that any wildlife could have survived this purging. Yet, as we explored the park’s few drivable roads, detouring to investigate any natural pans we came across, we saw a surprising variety of wild herbivores: giraffe, eland, sable, roan, kudu, tsessebe, reedbuck, impala, duiker, steenbok and warthog. Although signs of elephant littered the landscape, these heavily persecuted creatures eluded us by day.
With the limited road infrastructure, and with dense Miombo woodland dominating much of Sioma, we were compelled to exit the park in the northeast and then re-enter from the northwest at Silumbu entry point. The traditional Zambian gate – a tree hacked down and thrust across the road – alerted us to the presence of a Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) checkpoint. Although we were almost definitely the first – and quite possibly the only – tourists to enter through this ‘gate’ for the season, the ZAWA personnel were in no hurry to throw down the red carpet. It was clear that we were now on ‘Africa time’.
After lazily swatting a couple of flies, the ZAWA crew roused themselves to tackle the task at hand. At the head of the column was a rather officious-looking ZAWA lady. Hauling herself up, she pulled on a skew beret before waddling over to the boom, brandishing the 2008/2009 entry fees schedule in her left hand and an ancient-looking receipt book in her right. She slid her finger down to ‘foreigner’ and announced, “You must pay me US$5 per person per night and US$15 for each of the motor vehicles.” I politely enquired if I might consult her well-preserved price list before pointing out that, as South Africans, we should actually be paying SADC rates. “That doesn’t matter … You are white, so you are a foreigner!” she replied, without a trace of humour in her voice.
After thrashing the SADC topic around for a couple of minutes and making absolutely no headway, we decided that making a fuss over a couple of dollars really wasn’t worth it, especially after watching her painstakingly fill out our official receipt in triplicate. The money was going to a very good cause and the bureaucratic paperwork gave me hope that some of our dollars might actually find their way back to preserving this threatened wilderness.
Although the ZAWA personnel stationed at Sioma Ngwezi have traditionally focused their attention on revenue collection at the expense of regular and effective anti-poaching work, all this seems set to change with the park’s incorporation into the KAZA TFCA. Although for years they have been woefully ill-equipped and understandably unwilling to risk their lives against well-armed poachers from Angola, the presence of Flip Nel and Errol Petersen, Peace Parks’ technical advisors for the park, and a generous €2.2 million KfW grant should go a long way towards changing this attitude. With the purchase of new Land Cruisers, fuel and patrol equipment, as well as improved training, it is hoped that the ZAWA scouts can expand their patrol coverage and improve their efficacy in dealing with the poaching pandemic, the illegal sawmills and the uncontrolled veld-burning that threaten the park’s survival.
Sioma Ngwezi is a genuinely wild area. And the reason it remains devoid of tourists is simply because nobody knows about it. Instead of stopping to explore this stunning tract of unmapped African wilderness, 4×4 enthusiasts typically bypass it en route to better known wildlife destinations such as Liuwa or the Busanga Plains in Kafue. Their oversight leaves a ‘private park’ to the fortunate few who crave uncharted territory. True off-road adventurers thrive in wild areas where one needs to be completely self-sufficient; and Sioma, with absolutely no tourist facilities, it just that: a wild tract of African bush where one can camp alongside a natural pan and spot wildlife coming down to drink, but not see another tourist or vehicle for weeks.
Barotseland pioneer Gavin Johnson, of Mutemwa Camp on the Upper Zambezi, was the man who first alerted us to the beautiful Katuli Pools area where we now found ourselves camped. As it turned out, the Wild Dogs were denning no more than a couple of kilometres from our idyllic wilderness campsite. We pitched our tents under a huge, shady Jackalberry tree alongside a small natural pan, and judging by the plethora of prints embedded in the soft mud around its fringes, it was clearly a very popular watering hole indeed. On the first night, the whooping of a nearby hyena awoke me around 04h00. Looking out the tent window, I saw – by the light of a full moon – the ghostly shapes of elephants nervously approaching the water to drink. I savoured the surreal sight of these gigantic apparitions until the breeze swirled, and the behemoths, sensing something wasn’t quite right, turned and melted back into the bush like giant wraiths.
A couple of nights later, as our colleagues retired to their tents after a delicious lamb-chop and boerewors braai, Mike and I found ourselves seated alone next to the glowing embers of a dying campfire. It was 22h30. We were enjoying a final glass of red wine as we manfully solved the world’s problems when Mike suddenly went quiet. The unmistakable sound of noisy lapping drifted across the waterhole. I fumbled for the flashlight, desperately trying not to spill my wine in the process. The dull torch beam bouncing off the water illuminated two African Wild Dogs drinking greedily. Behind them a jumble of golden eyes bobbed up and down as the rest of the pack emerged from the bush and made its way down to the pan. Mesmerised by the sight of nine adult dogs enthusiastically quenching their thirst barely 30 metres away, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. Equally in awe, Mike pinched me before adding, “So we really aren’t dreaming!” The dogs stayed only five minutes, but it was an extraordinary experience that neither of us will forget.
Exploring the Katuli area was a rewarding experience, but a sobering final day brought us hurtling back to reality. Within the space of a couple of hours, we came across two freshly poached elephants. Oozing maggots and dripping with squabbling vultures, the beasts lay rotting not far from where we had camped. The tusks had been hastily hacked from an old bull; but, even more disturbing than seeing a six-ton elephant needlessly cut down in its prime, was the decomposing carcass of a young elephant – maybe four or five years old – that had been slain alongside a waterhole; even its tiny tusk stumps had been clumsily chopped out and carried away by the poachers. The elephant carcasses epitomised the fragility of this beleaguered wilderness area.
Having spent the best part of a week bush-camping, we found Mutemwa Lodge the perfect spot for a refreshing swim, ice-cold beer and a much-needed shower. Tucked away on the bank of the Upper Zambezi River, it was a serene place where we could put our feet up and relax. Each of Mutemwa’s comfortable en-suite bush tents boasted a secluded riverside deck with enchanting Zambezi views. And with resident fish eagles, herons, storks, finfoots and trogons, to name but a few favourites, we were treated to some of Southern Africa’s finest birding right from the comfort of camp. Mutemwa is more than a comfortable riverside retreat. While Penny kept a watchful eye on the preparation of delicious fireside dinners served under star-studded skies, Gavin showed his skills as a natural raconteur, sharing rugby, bush and fishing stories with equal aplomb. As the tales grew taller and the fish grew bigger, honking hippos provided the quintessential African soundtrack to memorable evenings on the banks of the mighty Zambezi.
Having made the decision to split our time between luxurious Mutemwa and the more overland-friendly Kabula Tiger Lodge, we drove upstream to try out Piet du Toit’s well-maintained and efficiently run camp. With a choice between quaint reed huts strung out along the river’s edge, and grassy campsites with spotless ablution and communalcooking facilities, Kabula is a camp which has something to suit all tastes and budgets. Their fully-stocked bar and stunning riverside deck provided a great spot for us to watch the sun go down. But no visit to the Zambezi would be complete without enjoying a sunset boat cruise and well-chilled Mosi out on the river. Hiring a couple of boats and coxswains, we settled on the perfect afternoon combo: throwing a line to try our hand at tiger fishing while guzzling cold beers, as a fiery sun dropped toward the horizon.
Puttering along in our tiny fishing boats, I had no problem following our guide’s wise instructions to keep arms and legs out of the water at all times. The occasional hippo bobbed up near by, but it was the omnipresent crocodiles that commanded my utmost respect out on the river. One afternoon we even bumped into a skittish breeding herd of around 20 elephants feeding on Kabula Island as we fished a nearby channel. The elephants didn’t hang around at the water’s edge for too long, but it was great to know that they still roamed this enigmatic area. A tiger fight is quite something to behold… One minute we were sitting there shooting the breeze, sipping beers and watching African skimmers flit by, when all of a sudden the drag on Dave’s rod started screaming. Pandemonium reigned as beers went flying, our boat rocked precariously and everyone yelled their two-cents-worth of fish-catching advice. Despite the bedlam, Dave somehow managed to land his first tiger; and, after a couple of quick photos, the fierce fish was returned to the river, allowing us to get back to the serious business of ‘sundownering’ once more.
There is something very special and strangely addictive about spending time on Southern Africa’s largest waterway, and it was tough to finally put our rods down and move on from Kabula, but our time on the magical Zambezi had recharged us and we were chomping at the bit to explore some more virgin territory. After popping across the Wenela Border to re-supply in Katima, we picked up our Lozi-speaking guide in Sesheke town before driving up the eastern side of the Zambezi. The dirt track skirted the wide river and every few miles we passed a village, or the occasional bicycle, but no cars.
Seeing a sign-posted turnoff to Nalikwanda Lodge, we decided to make a quick detour to check the place out for future reference. Not long afterwards, we bumped into Benjie Du Preez. This enterprising ex-rugby player is on a mission to uplift the local communities in the area by helping them establish a sable and roan breeding facility nearby. A perennially smiling and optimistic character who has taken the time to learn the Lozi language and understand ‘Africa time’, Benjie remained undaunted by the challenges still facing his Touching Africa Development Trust project. And, although we saw only duiker still surviving in this heavily hunted area, Benjie assured me that there were also small herds of the larger antelope species in the surrounding woodland. Exploring the enormous region that lies between the Zambezi and Kafue was a very different experience from our Sioma and Katuli adventure of the previous week. While the area exuded a powerful feeling of raw wilderness untrammelled by tourists, it was certainly not a wildlife destination. Most of the herds this side of the river have long-since been eaten by hungry villagers and the remaining wild animals have become nocturnal and elusive in order to survive.
As we pushed on in a north-westerly direction, the ‘road’ became increasingly less road-like. We had long since dropped off the map, with every form of navigational equipment we possessed showing nothing more than a spectacularly large blank area. Skirting the floodplains alongside the perennial Njoko, Kwembwa, Ngombe and Lumbe rivers, we came across a gaggle of desperately poor villages scattered along the river courses. The drainage lines were separated by huge sprawling woodlands and thick forests where moisture-loving flies seemed – as if by magic – to materialise in worryingly large numbers whenever we stopped to take a look around. It felt, at times, as if we were journeying towards the end of the earth.
As our rapidly deteriorating ‘road’ disappeared into a maze of overgrown Scotch cart tracks and proliferating cattle trails, our guide became increasingly valuable. We soon discovered, however, that stopping in small villages to ask directions was an unpredictable practice that yielded mixed results. While almost nobody spoke English, the locals were generally very friendly and helpful. But, in a surprisingly large number of these hamlets, we came across raucous beer parties where bleary-eyed men appeared absolutely sloshed by midmorning! We soon learnt to spot these iniquitous gatherings a mile off and steer clear.
After fording a number of increasingly deep tributaries along the edge of the Lumbe floodplain, we swung back east, and, after getting permission from a local chief, camped wild on the grassy fringe of the crystal-clear Luampungu Stream. Staring into the campfire that night under a dazzlingly beautiful star-strewn sky, I came to the realisation that in all my overland travels I had seldom felt so ‘in-the-middle-of-nowhere’ as that moment. A few days later, after some entertaining soft-sand driving and having lost a wing mirror to an unruly tree, we agreed it was time to wind our way slowly back past Sichili and Mulobezi to civilisation.
Sisheke Chiefdom desperately needs more like-minded nature lovers to come and enjoy its hidden secrets. Offering a rare chance to enjoy a genuine off-the-beaten-track 4×4 adventure through one of the last unmapped tracts of wilderness in southern Africa, your mere presence will go a long way towards preserving a fragile area that is integral to reopening one of Africa’s oldest migration corridors, and key to the long-term success of Peace Parks’ audacious KAZA vision. Sisheke and Sioma need you, so don’t delay; start planning your trip today.
SA4x4 Route Guide
WHERE WE STAYED
Mutemwa Lodge, Upper Zambezi
Tucked away on the west bank of the river, Mutemwa Lodge boasts not only premier accommodation but also the ultimate in hospitality on the Upper Zambezi. Gavin and Penny Johnson own and manage this idyllic riverside camp, which caters for 12 guests in permanent canvas en-suite tents atop teak decks. Go to www.mutemwa.co.za for further details.
Kabula Tiger Lodge and Campsite, Upper Zambezi Ten kilometres upstream of Mutemwa, Kabula Tiger Lodge and Campsite provides affordable and comfortable accommodation, or camping facilities, to overlanders who are also keen fishermen in search of a tiger. Check out www.kabulalodge.com for more.
Nalikwanda, Zambezi east bank Nalikwanda, situated on the east bank of the Zambezi, offers self-catering chalets with a central boma, kitchen and bar area. The camp is geared towards families and groups who enjoy fishing, birding and the outdoors. Further information at: www.nalikwanda.co.za
Ngombe Lodge, Zambezi east bank Located 90 kilometres north of Sesheke town on the east bank of the Zambezi, Ngombe Lodge is currently undergoing a change in ownership, and the camp is not fully operational during the restructuring period. But keep an eye on www.ngombelodge.com to find out when it will be up and running again.
PLACES OF INTEREST
Inaugurated in August 2012, the tiny Peace-Parks sponsored Ngonye Falls Community Partnership Park is home to not only the second largest waterfall on the Zambezi, but also to a wide range of recently re-introduced antelope species. Sioma Ngwezi National Park and neighbouring Katuli Pools boast the best opportunities for game viewing and wilderness camping in the Chiefdom’s last surviving wildlife area.
Working from a well-preserved 2008-2009 fee schedule, ZAWA charged us park fees of US$5 per person per day and another US$5 per person per day for wilderness camping. SADC prices were marginally cheaper; but, inexplicably, South Africans didn’t qualify! Foreign-registered cars cost US$15 per vehicle per day to enter Sioma Ngwezi.
The Vuma filling station in Sesheke town is the nearest place for overlanders to readily obtain fuel; Livingstone – with a number of petrol stations – is the most reliable place in southwest Zambia for sourcing fuel, although it is situated 170 kilometres further east of Sesheke. Fuel is cheaper in Namibia, so fill up before crossing the border. In fact, a number of Zambian-based operators actually opt to brave the mayhem of the Wenela border crossing to resupply on the Namibian side, where fuel and food supplies are more reliable, and prices lower.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
If crossing into Zambia from the Caprivi, then stock up with provisions at either Shoprite or Pick ’n Pay in Katima Mulilo before proceeding to the border. Both supermarkets offer a full range of perishable and non-perishable items at reasonable prices.
Another option, in Zambia, is to go to the Super Spar or Shoprite in Livingstone which have a wide selection of food, meat and beverages at slightly inflated prices. Sesheke town sells almost nothing in the way of provisions, although we did manage to find fresh bread as well as a few vegetables in the small street market.
Proper recovery points front and rear are recommended, as well as tow/snatch straps and/or a winch. An air compressor and tyre pressure gauge will also prove invaluable. Carry plenty of spare fuel and drinking water, because – if you get into trouble – it might be a long time before help reaches you in the remote reaches of Sisheke. Tie-downs and ratchet straps are useful for lashing down trommels and other gear, ensuring a quieter and safer offroad journey.
CONVOY OR SOLO
If you intend to spend most of your time camped alongside the mighty Zambezi chasing trophy-sized tiger fish, then solo is absolutely fine. But, if you’re a nature lover or explorer at heart, then travelling in convoy is highly recommended. Detouring into the more remote and far-flung corners of the Sisheke Chiefdom will see you, quite literally, disappearing off the map into seldom-visited areas that are the domain of only the most intrepid 4×4 enthusiasts.
Road conditions vary throughout the area and according to the season. At one end of the spectrum, the new Chinese tar road linking Sesheke to Senanga as well as Mongu – which is currently mid-construction and progressing fast – will be on a par with the Trans-Caprivi Highway when completed. However, for the most part, the Sisheke region is Kalahari Sandveld and you will be driving on sandy two-tracks much of the time. In areas where logging predominates, timber trucks have widened the tracks and churned up the sand, turning these routes into more challenging, fuel-guzzling undertakings. But there’s nothing that any real 4×4 with decent clearance can’t handle.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
All the paper maps that we consulted were woefully out-of-date and few roads matched up in reality. We found the latest version of Tracks4Africa to be useful, although much of Sisheke Chiefdom was unmapped on the GPS – something that we were secretly very excited about.
Any fully-equipped petrol or diesel 4×4 with high clearance should be able to handle the deep Kalahari sands that need to be negotiated in places. The vast majority of roads, tracks and river crossings won’t pose any major problems during the dry season.
Zambia is a malaria area, so stock up on prophylactics before leaving home. Our group used Malarone, an expensive but highly effective anti-malarial drug. Because of the remote nature of this region, overlanders should always travel with a comprehensive and fully-stocked first aid kit.
RESPECTING LOCAL CUSTOMS
For the most part, the local Lozi people are friendly and welcoming, so, provided you treat them with respect, they are only too happy for travellers to explore their chiefdom. Always remember to ask permission from the local headman if you intend camping wild in the vicinity of a rural village.
Overlanders entering Zambia from Namibia have a choice: either the well-travelled Wenela border-crossing which joins Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi to Sesheke town in Zambia, or the new Singalamwe border post. This recently-opened KAZA TFCA tourist facility – just north of the Kongola police check-point on the Kwando River – gives visitors convenient access directly into the Sioma Ngwezi National Park. Namibia-Zambia borders generally operate between 06h00 and 18h00.
If coming from Botswana, your best bet would be to cross the Zambezi via the notorious Kazungula Ferry; and, from Zimbabwe, the most direct approach is from Victoria Falls to Livingstone before swinging west. All foreign-registered vehicles entering Zambia need to pay a R170 (US$20) Entry Fee; R50 (N$50) Sesheke Council Tax; R330 (ZMK 200,000) Zambian Revenue Authority Fee; and ZAR510 (ZMK 300,000) for Zambian 3rd Party Insurance.
To find out more about the valuable work of the Peace Parks Foundation in guiding the ambitious KAZA TFCA programme, and, more specifically, their Sioma Ngwezi development project, go to www.peaceparks.org
To learn more about the Sisheke Chiefdom and gain a better understanding of the recently implemented Sisheke Conservation Project, have a look at www.sisheke.com