Wet vehicle batteries aren’t good news. As any fule kno. But it’s not always easy to keep them dry. When crossing a river, for example, at a little too fast a pace.
It’s our first river – unless you count the sandy one.
The one where our wheels kept spinning, propelling us deeper into the sand instead of up onto the bank. Where we laid down cardboard and twigs and branches while feeding the tsetse flies on our sweet, red blood.
Even a devout Jain would have wished them dead. No, really. I still have tsetse fly bites that itch years later. Honest.
But back to this river.
It’s wet – and it was meant to be the easy one.
Vehicle two is sitting in the middle.
A bit of a relief, given we’ve no way of contacting anyone, other than driving on – or back.
We drive on.
It’s warm. Hot, in fact. And we’re crammed – with loads of buckets and shovels and tents – into two vehicles crossing Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Heading for the Muchinga escarpment, up which we are planning to drive.
(Sorry, that sounds like a translation, I was trying to be grammatically correct.)
But there’s another river in the way. And this one’s a tad more challenging.
A group of local workmen happens to be here, working on a dead bridge (now that would’ve been useful). A reassuring presence – added strength, if push comes to shove. Or wet comes to pull, more accurately. The crossing’s not straight across – and dragging a vehicle out would be a teensy bit more tricky than last time.
We go first, following the waving-arm directions of the workmen rather than the channel markers. It’s a gamble, but they know they’ll have to help us if we get stuck, have a vested interest in us making it across.
The short drive feels like a rally, but it’s quickly done, destination achieved for vehicle one.
After much nail biting, hesitation and a change of driver for good measure, the second makes it across, battery dry and engine still running.
Now the ‘road’ starts climbing upwards. There’s a pause for the checkpoint – and for Rosie to hand out balloons to the inquisitive children who surround us the instant we stop.
Then begins the ascent.
Anthro-man’s driving the lead vehicle. I’m gripping the dashboard, orange with dust, leaving grey patches washed clean by sweat when finally I let go.
I imagine this is what rock climbing’s like. Never done it myself, what with being paralysed by heights and generally cowardly in the face of danger.
The wheels move at a sloth’s pace, but with much more noise. I worry with each lurch forward that we’re going to slip back down – and down – and down.
The slope feels almost vertical and turning the tight rocky bends – imagine driving up a barber’s pole – is excruciating, because then I can see the drop falling away below us.
But the engine grinds on.
And it’s hot. So hot.
We stop, briefly, perched at an angle on a corner of jutting stones. I hold my breath as we start up again and it seems as if we’re stuck. I lean forward as if I can drag the poor, struggling machine over each boulder.
We edge on. And up. And on. And up. Until, oh joy, we reach the top.
The reward is a panorama glimpsed through the lush, leafy miombo woodland that clothes the plateau.
But there’s no time for mere tourism. We’re working to a schedule.
Our next goal’s a real, metalled road: the Great North, my favourite Zambian point-of-the-compass road. The further north it goes the better I like it – and this trip we’re going as far as it can take us. All the way to the Tanzanian border.
Today’s just stage one.
We’re aiming for Kasama, capital of the Northern Province.
There we’ll try and have a good night’s rest.
There we’ll check out the rock art.
There – we’ll go shopping. My job. Serious shopping, for our week-long camping trip to Kalambo Falls, natural wonder – and site of Anthro-man’s next excavation.
We drive on.
It feels further than it is. Tired, dusty, weary, we arrive at Kasama. Check into ‘Thorn Tree,’ a lodge, in town. A pre-tent treat for us all.
It makes a big impression on me, Thorn Tree, largely because of the pet lamb – Lamb Chop by name. Unaware it’s soon to be eponymous, it clatters down the corridor, skittering around on the hard floor, baa-ing outside our room – and peeing in the bar.
We’re only here for one night. Tomorrow we change our accommodation for something more holy.
But for now, it’s food, drink, shower – and sleep.
Damn that lamb.