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.
38 Travel Zambia November 2007hiked up a long stony ridge. At the top a new vista awaited us: a breathtaking panorama of peaks and valleys falling away west to the distant, hazy lowlands of Zambia. This was the summit; we were now perched on the watershed between two nations. No customs, no immigration, just mountains and sky. My inflated sense of achievement was somewhat punctured by the sight of a cairn. Clearly other people had been here before us, and – judging by the scattered crusts of dung – so had their cattle. But they had certainly not been tourists, and you can bet that this spot had escaped the Lonely Planet. For good measure, I piled a few more stones on top. It took an hour’s cautious descent down the other (Zambian) side of the ridge, before our camp came into view: a startling line of blue domed tents perched incongruously along a narrow shoulder of hillside. It was certainly a glorious spot: the distant plains shimmering through a gap in the mountains and a blaze of colour from the fringe of miombo woodland below. The light was starting to fade, and a blue trickle of smoke betrayed the fact that Joe and Akim, our cooks, were already working their culinary miracles. Any chance of a quick pre-dinner wash? David indicated the forested cleft behind the camp, where a tangle of trees hid the stream that tumbled from the gorge above. This, he explained, was our bathroom. More to the point – it was also the Luangwa. Our gallant little camp on the bare hillside was home for the next two nights. After the comforts of Nyika I won’t pretend it was luxury: there’s no escaping the hard reality of sleeping on a stony ridge, digging a hole to answer nature’s call and washing off the day’s exertions in a mountain stream. But the team looked after us royally. Besides, there was a deep satisfaction in knowing that everything we brought in to this pristine spot we also brought out. The source itself had to wait until the morning after our arrival. After an immense fry-up, David led us back up to the ridge and around towards the top of the gorge. Leopard scat on the trail heightened the frisson of adventure as we approached the dense waterberry grove that concealed our holy grail. And there it was: a gleam of water welling up below a rock and trickling feebly into the mossy undergrowth. Could this really be the Luangwa? It looked like nothing a decent plumber couldn’t fix. But David and John had checked out the requisite maps, and who was I to argue? I ended that momentous day perched on a crumbling ledge near camp, scanning the treetops below for an elusive bar-tailed trogon. We knew it was there: its enigmatic hoo hoo hoo had been approaching upwards through the canopy for the last half hour, lured from the forest depths by David’s canny imitation. The light began to fade and still we sat. Then suddenly, in a brief flutter of emerald and crimson, our bird appeared: a jewel worthy of such a precious place. Zambia undiscovered And there it was: a gleam of water welling up below a rock and trickling feebly into the mossy undergrowth. Could this really be the Luangwa? Camping in the Mafingas, just below the source. ALL PHOTOS MIKE UNWIN