The last time I was in Zambia was 1996. A lot has changed since then! For one I am 22 years older. Another, I am now an adult. This was one of the more stressful trips I’ve organised – information on the internet isn’t as easy to come by but more importantly my trust that things I had booked would work out was low.
The internet was full of death-inducing dangers of driving in Zambia. There’s not a big car hire industry in Zambia and I had booked with a relatively unknown (at least by internet recommendations) company. We arrived into Lusaka early on our flight from Johannesburg, having left home some 20 hours earlier. Reaching the front of the queue at immigration we were informed we needed to be at the desk next door. So we duly shuffled across, upon reaching the front of that queue we were told we needed to be in the queue next door. What? We’ve just come from there? Turns out there was a little window we’d missed where KAZA visas are issued. Eventually being served from that window, the lady then battled with the password for the special laptop, the printer, the print alignment etc. Forty-five minutes later we both had KAZA visas, and the luggage was only just out so no time really lost. Our car hire man was there, and we were whisked away to a dark, deserted car park (it was 9:30pm by this stage) to collect the car. It was a full 4WD Toyota Prado rather than the ‘medium SUV’ I’d booked. Bonus. It felt like the classic set up for a mugging. I was pulling out my credit card, licence, passport while Tom was being dragged around to inspect the car in the dark. We survived the dark car park and soon I was driving to our accommodation for the night. That was all pretty straight-forward as well.
The next morning we had breakfast and then headed to East Park Mall to do some shopping. I was impressed by the mall. Unfortunately because it was Sunday most of the shops didn’t open until 10am, so we couldn’t get away until after then. The camping store I’d hoped to get a gas canister from had one sort with the screw (EN417) attachment but it wasn’t quite the type we’re used to. With no choice we hoped it would work. We picked up a local SIM card as well as some groceries and fuelling up the car. Tom took the first leg of the driving which wasn’t much fun as we had to firstly get out of Lusaka and then once on the main road there were numerous trucks going at variable speeds. It made overtaking a much more challenging experience due to the large variety of speeds being done, by the vehicles in front, the vehicles approaching on the other side of the road and the vehicles racing up behind you that were game to overtake multiple cars/trucks at a time. On the plus side the road was in much better condition than I was expecting with very few potholes.
Not finding anywhere suitable to stop for lunch Tom ended up doing over 4 hours straight driving, and lunch was eaten while we were driving. It was with great relief we finally got to my old school friend Nicky’s farm in Mkushi. I last saw Nicky in NZ when we were both 19 and we did a 2 week road trip around the South Island. A lot has changed since then! We had a lovely evening outside around the fire with Nicky & family (husband, 4 kids, 2 fur children) before crashing out. The next morning Nicky’s Mum & Dad & sister popped by – it was great to see them, as they had been wonderful hosts to me for several weeks in the summer of 1996/97.
Next stop was Ndubaluba to get a map for our Mt Mumpu mission. Abe gave us a map and the loan of a water filter, but the most complex thing seemed to be the driving directions! We hoped we had all we needed before hitting the road for Kundalila Falls. Despite suggestions we should pretend to be locals to get the cheaper fees I couldn’t bring myself to outright lie when asked what country we were from. So K150 each later we had our invoice – only 6 times the local rate! We wandered around to the look-out of the falls, then headed down to the bottom. The base of the falls was in the shade and despite being a bit sweaty by the time we got down there was no real temptation to go for a swim. Tom spent a while photo-faffing before we headed back up.
The photographer at work at Kundalila Falls
At the top the campsite was pumping! We had been warned that there was an Ndubs group there, so it wasn’t hard for me to pick out Mr Thompson (my ex-Geography teacher, now head of the outdoor centre). We had a most enjoyable evening with Mr T, and the Banani school group – including their presentations of Super Supper. It was our coldest night though – was very glad of my warm sleeping bag that I almost hadn’t packed.
Views from the Kundalila Falls viewing area
After visiting the view point again in the morning, and with final tips from Mr T on Mumpu we hit the road. We made good time to Mkushi, but then it was a very slow drive out to Changwena Falls. We had a mud map of the route but we weren’t super confident in it. The key direction was to turn right at the Upper Lunsemfwa Primary School sign… we got to a sign, I thought I could make out the lettering so we turned. The road was increasingly sketchy and we were both desperately hoping we were going the right way because it wasn’t going to be much fun having to drive back out with no reward.
Eventually we became confident we were on the right road. We found the other turn-off with the bits of tape on the tree and soon we were at Changwena Falls along with the crowds. We had also been warned that a Duke of Ed Group would be finishing up there, so we weren’t surprised. What we were surprised at was the annoying bitey flies (bees?) that were everywhere, including in your ears and eyes and nose. That made our decision on whether to walk to the base that afternoon pretty easy – anything to get away from the insects! We scored a colour map from Josh, to replace the B&W one we’d been given by Abe, and then we were off.
What we would call a fire trail had been established to a base camp below Mt Mumpu so it was easy walking in the late afternoon.
The firetrail to the base of Mt Mumpu
We passed a burn-off along the road on our way. Unfortunately one of the last things Mr T had warned us about was the possibility of fires and the danger to the car. While I wasn’t concerned it meant Tom had a sleepless night worrying about it.
Seasonal burn-off next to the fire trail
After some quick photos of the mountain in the sunset light we got camp sorted. Our gas canister had been a dud as our stove wouldn’t screw into it far enough to release gas, so it had been ditched and we were back to cooking on the fire. It was a super windy night which didn’t help our sleep.
Camp below Mt Mumpu (if you look carefully you can see the cave)
Tom was so worried about the car and out of control grass fires he wanted to bail straight back to the car. I was having none of it. So shortly after 7:30am we left camp on our way up Mt Mumpu. It looked exactly like the photos from 1994
On our way to Mt Mumpu
Starting to get steep
The mouth of the cave
A bit of scrambling keeps things interesting
Bat guano. Mmmm.
More scrambling in the cave
The section up through the cave was trickier than I was expecting. But then I realised most of my memories from the 1994 trip were just based on the photos and video. There was quite a lot of scrambling, a bit of pack passing and some grunting from Tom as we squeezed through a couple of the smaller holes.
In the cave in 1994
I can see the light!
Looking back through the dark section
Tom emerging from the dark, squeezy section
Once through it wasn’t quite over, we had to find our way out on to the ridge, disturbing some baboons who were quite vocal in their displeasure but soon headed off.
Taking in the views
There was still a bit of work to be done to get to the summit. We arrived at 9:30am – 2 hours after leaving camp.
The trig has been pushed over, with a cross in place at the summit now
I was hoping to somehow recreate the summit shot from 1994 but the Trig which had existed then has been
pushed over hit by lightning.
The 1994 summit party (I’m in the middle in the red/white striped top)
The 2018 version – standing on the original trig spot
We enjoyed the views for a while before heading off the other side.
Tom with views of the Irumi Hills behind
We picked our way down another ridge and found the walking similar to The Kimberley region in Australia. Spinifex-like grass which was slow-going at times, or fast if it had been burnt out.
Easy walking through some of the burnt out areas
Enjoying lunch in the shade
Other than deciding to go through a swamp for about 200m at the bottom of the ridge we descended the walking was very pleasant. We picked up the fire trail we’d come in on a bit further along and were back at, a now empty, campsite by 2:30pm.
Back on the fire trail
We hadn’t actually been down to the Falls when we’d arrived the previous day. I didn’t really remember them, other than in 1994 I knew we’d swum there. They are stunning. Again we could have been in The Kimberley. We had a good wash, though didn’t stay in too long as the water was brisk. Unfortunately the annoying flies found us and eventually I beat a retreat to the tent.
Enjoying a well-earned swim at Changwena Falls
Some of the 1994 contingent enjoying Changwena Falls
We had a pleasant night around the campfire. I was surprised at the amount of rubbish that has been left around camp – Mr Solomon would have had our heads! I cleaned up most of the toilet paper and foil in the fire, but don’t think I got to everything.
Camping at Changwena Falls
On the drive out we discovered the back of the sign was very clearly lettered! So if driving out there and in doubt – have a look at the back!
The back of the sign
A fun trip, though going up the cave was a bit harder than I was expecting – quite impressed by my 14-year old self!
See the later part of the trip here: Lower Zambezi