Harrison Fording in Zambia. (Archaeologists head north, the hard way)

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.


Engine dead.oops got a bit wet

battery problemsAfter a bit of paddling and towing – and poking and prodding by people who seem to know what they’re doing – it’s sorted.

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.

river this way!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.

We hope.

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.

Phew.chasing us for more balloons

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.

As if.

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.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe temperature’s a little fresher and we stop for lunch. Climb on top of the vehicles for a better view.

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.

And 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.

Yes, holy.

But for now, it’s food, drink, shower – and sleep.


Damn that lamb.

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7 Responses to Harrison Fording in Zambia. (Archaeologists head north, the hard way)

  1. John Kemp says:

    Hello again Mary. It’s interesting to learn there are still, after Desmond Clark’s three volumes (don’t get me wrong, I don’t know them, I just know of them), excavations to be done at Kalambo, and how exciting to have been doing them. And those falls! Have the 2006 results been published? I have Ben Smith’s “Zambia’s ancient rock art: The paintings of Kasama”, but I look forward to seeing original photos from there. It would be interesting to know if there are any alternative or additional opinions or ideas from your neck of the woods. Thanks for the great photos of the journey so far. Why did you go that way round instead of straight up the Gt North Rd, were you going on from a Luangwa site? Let’s hope the application for the next one is accepted.


    • Hi John. First, the 2006 excavations. One of the downsides of an interdisciplinary team is that the organiser has no control over the experts he assembles – it has taken many years for the dating experts and others to sort out their full reports/analyses (sorry for this imprecise language) as they all have their own priorities which means that a full report is only now in the production process and I suspect it will still be some time before it appears. Results have been presented at conferences and there is an interim report online which you can find here: http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/barham322/
      There is indeed much still to be done as technology and so on have moved on. It is one of the most evocative archaeological sites I have been privileged to see and certainly produced some of the most beautiful stone ‘tools’ I have ever seen. I did not take part in the excavations sadly because I was too busy with domestic chores, of which more anon. We went up the escarpment because we were starting from S Luangwa where we had been digging, yes. It was an experience! I will be putting up a few rock art pictures and perhaps can persuade my in-house expert to give me some comments to pass on that are more academic than mine! Thanks as always for reading, more soon…


  2. whoah, they made you work hard for that view, eh? but dang, it seems like it’s worth it. love your story, am sure twas worse in real life (or it’s not as bad as all that, yet you made it so in telling, haha). i l like your “wet comes to pull.” hey, the trip must have been bad. anyway, you got your meal, your bed and your water and till next post, when you’ll say that the destination is worth the climbing, pushing and being all dried up, ahaha. thanks for sharing, memoir… take care 🙂


  3. Jennie Saia says:

    I am fascinated. I had to come back and read this after I found Part Deux.


  4. Pingback: The other end of the First World War. ‘Tipperary mbali sana, sana’ | MEMOIRS OF A HUSK

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