Driving West to Liuwa Plain National Park feels like you are heading to the edge of the world. Zambia almost ends, the Zambezi appears and suddenly the world seems to expand. Horizons stretch for miles and the sky suddenly seems huge. It is difficult to describe just how different this area is, arriving in Mongu you can look out over the 25kms of floodplains towards the other side: Kalabo, Liuwa and Angola. The destination has understandably become a bit of a cult one for safari cognoscenti and self drive adventurers alike. We (as in Julia and myself) have been there five times and for 2016 we decided that we would offer a joint Kaingu/Liuwa package, with the Liuwa part being a fly-in safari and fully catered and serviced. A maximum of six guests, a Kaingu guide and open vehicle and accommodation in comfortable large dome tents with food by Wina and Benny in the front of house. It all sounded like a plan! To do Liuwa there are not that many options. If you hire a (fully equipped) 4x4 and know what you are doing than that is an option. There are a couple of operators doing driving based trips and then there is one lodge option that is priced quite highly so we felt that a fly-in mobile option had potential. The interest (and the bookings) seemed to confirm our views. The area is certainly getting more known and seems to feature in every second magazine article. Visitor numbers have expanded over the last few years, but to be honest we are talking about a handful of people - the limited camping sites (and the control and running off them by African Parks) and the very limited lodging means that visitors are few.
For us the staff, the place is now getting a lot easier to get to. A causeway of 27 bridges has tamed the Zambezi floodplains. I have heard it said (by affluent outsiders) that this has changed a part of 'old Africa' for the worse. Easy to say if you don't actually live there and just holiday there... It is a stunning piece of engineering and makes life a lot easier. What took us once three and half hours churning through mud and sand in pouring rain now is a cream cheese smooth 20 minutes. I will take the smooth option any time thanks.
But not before stopping in the new Shoprite supermarket in Mongo after overnighting in the town.
Benny goes mad and starts taking selfies and asking to be snapped in front of the new shoprite. Oddly he is not the only one.
Once at Kalabo we go through what we have done many times before. Reducing tyre pressures to better cope with the thick sand and then checking in with the friendly, efficient Africa Parks tourism girls. Charity was always a star and Mimi seems to be cut from the same cloth. This time we are doing Liuwa with guests, so we have pre-paid everything so it is just a matter of checking in. Kaley has reached first so has left our avgas at the Kalabo airfield and sorted out the watchman. So all that remains is to get to camp. This means first the famous hand-drawn pontoon which is now even more bizarre as the ramps have been damaged by a truck so I have to reverse off with the trailer into sand. Luckily I don't mess it up as there is an audience! Kaley then crosses over with the game viewer and the real adventure begins.
Maybe it's just us but we don't seem to remember the sand being quite as thick as it is... After an hour we say that its not just us. The tracks leading to the park really are churned sand and making progress is not easy. Once into the park things smooth out and we reach Lyangu site and start the big unpack. Oh boy. We cannot get into the site that the guests will use until the next day so we set up as best we can and plan to move all the tents the following day. The offloading and packing seems to go on and on – with a quick sandwich break – but at least its not raining. We get as much done as we can and then call it a day.
Julia and myself jump in our vehicle and head off for a quick drive just up to the pools at the lone palm – one of Liuwa's landmarks.
Immediately we are struck by just how dry everything is. The pools are basically empty. Now wildebeest need to be by water, so the dry pools get us a bit alarmed. Without water the migration (or gathering) of the wildebeest is going to be later. Hmm. Ah well, this is the way of the wild. We get back and Wina cooks the five of us a fantastic kapenta and nshima meal. Early to bed and an early start for tomorrow.
Next day we are all up at 06:00. By safari standards this is a long lie. Kaley is off back to Kalabo to pick up the guests at the airstrip. Sadly the Islander is too heavy for the sandy strip inside the park at Matamanene. We all frantically move the guest tents and start making the beds (literally as the camping beds have to be assembled). Fridges are wired into solar panels and eventually we reckon its all about done. Just in time – a quick shower, into Kaingu clothes and Kaley is pulling in with the first group of 6 guests. Now we have to see if we can re-create the standards we st at Kaingu in an even more remote location. What have we forgotten? The nearest shops are a long, long way away. Kaley radios in (we remembered to bring radios so that we can still get the 'five minutes out' call. “Kaingu Lyangu come in”. We are in business.
The first group went really well and sightings were fantastic – a mother cheetah with cubs probably being the highlight. Our logistics and infrastructure is all working well – from the bucket showers that we brought (the campsites only have cold water showers) through to the solar panels and batteries to keep our fridge and freezer running.
All too soon the first group is gone and we are on the move again. While Kaley takes the guests to the plane sitting at Kalabo airstrip Julia, Benny and myself and Wina pack as much as we can physically fit on the trailer and our vehicle and then set off North to Katoyana camp site which is considerably further North. We get there and are about 90% setup when Kaley and Wina roll in. Another great Nshima and Kapenta meal and all too soon it's 0600 the next day and Kaley is off to get the next guests. They arrive in camp just after lunch and the second group is now under way.
Sightings again with this group are superb – more cheetah, lots and lots of hyena (and of course wildebeest).
It all worked out really, really well. The guests loved the whole experience, and several guests told us that we MUST keep doing it for 2017. Wina in particular received many compliments about the quality of the food that was prepared in our basic kitchen. While we call it a 'mobile' safari (and it is) it is extremely comfortable camping. Our tents are all roomy with stretcher beds and mattresses and the whole safaris is basically as comfortable as we can make it withought building a lodge! As I finish this we are pricing up next years packages and setting dates. We can't wait to get back there!