The quavering whistle of a mountain nightjar drifts across the hillside as I pick my way down towards the forest. Once inside, the dark tangle of undergrowth closes overhead and the gurgle of a stream beckons me forward. After a few cautious metres I’m standing beside a terraced chain of pools. It’s magical, mysterious – more Narnia than Africa. Slipping off clothes and boots, and draping my towel on an overhanging root, I ease into the nearest pool, scattering shards of moonlight across the surface. The bracing water is delicious relief after a sweaty day of high-altitude exertion. But it is hard to believe that I’m bathing in the Luangwa. Like every river, of course, the Luangwa has a source. And it is in the remote Mafinga Mountains of northeast Zambia, at least 300km from the South Park and a challenging 1,500m above it, that this great waterway is born. Here the muscular landscape is a far cry from the flat dusty bush of the distant valley. It has also long been off the tourist compass – until now. The new tour on which I find myself, dubbed the ‘Source Safari’, is the combined brainchild of John Coppinger of Remote Africa Safaris and David Foot of Nyika Safaris in Malawi. Coppinger knows the river as well as anybody, but had never been able to reach its remote source from the Zambian side. Thus the two men had pioneered a route from the more accessible Malawian side, and were now sharing their experience with adventurous guests. Our trip had started over the border on Malawi’s Nyika Plateau. Here we had been able to acclimatise to the altitude, while also enjoying some of the unexpected treasures of this elevated world. Nyika comprises more than 3,000 square kilometres of undulating hills that loom high above the hot, dry bush of northern Malawi and extend for a short distance into Zambia. Three days on the plateau had given us a chance to get into mountain mode in preparation for the Mafingas. Chelinda Safari Lodge, our base, was 36 Travel Zambia November 2007 To safari buffs the name ‘Luangwa’ evokes an instantly recognisable landscape, one of sandbanks, meander loops and heaving pods of hippos. These images, of course, encapsulate the world-famous South Luangwa National Park. Yet, over its twisting 800km length, this great river encounters many very different Zambian landscapes – and none more so than the remote mountains where it rises. Mike Unwin joined a new tour that aimed to track the Luangwa to its source. In search of the source Heading into the heart of the Mafingas. ALL PHOTOS MIKE UNWIN More than 200 species of orchid flourish on the Nyika Plateau.
November 2007 Travel Zambia 37 Zambia undiscovered all log cabins, blazing fires and pine-scented mountain air – a very different take on the safari experience, and the perfect retreat from which to explore the surrounding terrain. Nyika is not really about big-game viewing – although there’s no better place in Africa to see roan and eland, and regular leopard sightings keep the Big-Five brigade happy. The plateau’s true riches are more subtle, and best appreciated on foot. This proved ideal for our party, who had been anxious to get in some good mountain mileage. Each trail we took revealed something different: on day one we pottered gently down from camp through grasslands studded with orchids, as rare blue swallows darted overhead; the next afternoon we crept through a pocket of Afromontane forest, where blue duikers pattered through the leaf litter and the canopy dripped with birdsong. Darkness also brought rewards: returning by vehicle one evening, our spotlight picked out side-striped jackals, spotted eagle owls and – best of all – a wary serval, melting into the grass at our intrusion. There’s a subtle allure to Nyika: once up there, the world below begins to lose its appeal. A map of the plateau reveals ever more trails and forests inviting exploration, and a stable full of horses offers an exhilarating way to reach those distant horizons. But we were on a mission: the Mafingas awaited. And so, on day four, a rugged drive took us northwest to the tiny settlement of Chambo Mission, from where our ascent was to begin. We parked the vehicles beneath the shade of a brachystegia while our porters loaded up the gear (yes, the trip came with porters; it wasn’t that rugged). Then, after the requisite photos, we strode out through the dusty village and hit the trail. The climb to the top took six hours. Six hours for us, that is; the porters had disappeared ahead of us within minutes. The trail wound out of the village through wilting cassava fields and zig-zagged up over the lower slopes. After an hour or so we had some decent altitude under our belts, and by midday the thatched rooftops of the village seemed impossibly far below. Our lunch stop brought us the welcome shade of the last trees on the hillside. Thereafter the trail continued ever more steeply across an increasingly bare and hostile hillside. It was late afternoon by the time we crossed a narrow saddle, the land plunging precipitously away on either side, and then Nyika’s prolific birdlife includes Denham’s bustard by day (top left) and spotted eagle owl by night (above left), while aloes festoon the rocky hillsides. Horses from Chelinda Lodge attract the curiosity of the local eland.