Hiking With Robin Pope in Zambia (4)
We hear the drums waking us the next morning and we are SO ready. We have met with Robin Pope, who oriented us with maps to the area of the Mupamadze River we will trek, and has given us all kinds of hints as to how we will need to dress and to take care of ourselves and one another.
After breakfast, we load into a land cruiser specially built in Tanzania on a Toyota truck base. It is sturdy, tough, and very practical. We choose our seats, we tuck our long pants into our socks, we pull our sleeves down over our hands, and wrap our kikoy around our faces – we will be heading into tzetze fly territory.
From the very beginning, we understand what is so special about travelling with Robin Pope. This man knows so much. We stop every kilometer – here is a bird rarely seen, and here is a lion track, and here is a lagoon where we might see . . . ! Things we might pass right by without knowing anything are examined and are illuminated; we see the world in a tiny pond, and we see the miracles in a leaf.
We come to a great sand river, full in the rainy season but empty and sand-filled now. Robin gets a running start, but still, almost to the other side, we bog down. Yes, I am taking the photo, but as soon as I took it, I had to go and push, too. . . .
these trips aren’t for the lazy bones! It took all of us pushing and Robin rocking the truck back and forth to get it going again, and get us to the other side of the sand river. Great exercise!
Almost to the camp, we saw a family or warthogs and five little warthog babies along the right side of the road, and and a duiker kill on the left side of the road – two more stops. It’s waaaaayyyyyy late when we get to camp, but . . . who cares? Vultures circle – and we learn to identify five different kind. We are having a ball.
These temporary camps are not so elaborate as the camps at Tena Tena, Nkwali and Nsefu – they are put together and taken apart as we hike along the river. We stay one night at the first camp, two nights at the second camp and two nights at the third camp. The tents are small, but still tall enough to stand up in. There is a nightstand between the two camp beds, with a candle, matches and mosquito coil. Each bed has a folding type stand for a piece of luggage. Outside, there is your washing stand, two camp chairs, a mat, places to put your toiletries, and places to hang your wash.
There are separate “long-drop” toilets for the men and for the women, a shovel and a bucket of sand as part of the etiquette so that whoever comes next won’t be grossed out. The shower is a gravity drop shower, with nice warm water. We have to arrange with one another how we will schedule our shower time.
At lunch the first day, they serve a green salad, spinach crepes, pumpkin, onion bread, beef salad, potato salad, melon and cookies (biscuits). Amazing – out here in the middle of nowhere, a beautiful table, nice wines, tablecloths, napkins and great food. Best of all is that we have good travelling companions, and the conversation is fast and furious and a lot of fun.
We travelled lightly, so almost every day we have to wash and hang socks or a shirt, or even once a pair of jeans. They dry very quickly in the hot hot sun of late August. The days start out chill, rising around six to be on the path by six thirty, but by the time we get to our next stop for lunch, it is hot hot hot. Although we are hiking six hours in the morning and a couple hours in the afternoon, it is easy hiking, maybe some brisk walking but always stopping as Robin spots a martin, or a rare bird, or hears buffalo, or even – spots a lion!
After a rest and time for settling in, we take a late game walk with Robin to the top of a nearby hill where we can look off into the far away hills, and watch the river meander out of sight. He points out where we will trek the next day, and we head back for camp.
The plan for the trip is to do about 10 km a day – we hike for six or so hours in the morning and then another two in the afternoon. OK, here is the truth – I am an introvert, and I don’t like to feel rushed about taking my shower, so I skip the afternoon walk just to have some quiet time and a leisurely shower. The walks are not rigorous – during the mornings, we may hike, but we stop so often to look at things or to take photos that we never feel pushed or tired.
My very favorite part of the hiking is crossing the river. Robin finds a safe, not-too-deep place, away from the crocodiles, and we all strip off our shoes and socks and carry them as we wade across the nice, cool river. Early in the morning we see herons, and buffalo as well as crocodile, and it all has an unearthly feel to it. Robin knows where all the good paths are, so we will cross and spend a while on one side, and then cross back over to see something special on the other side.
The food was absolutely amazing. Beef Wellington. Tilapia. Wonderful sweet desserts. And once, oh what a treat, a selection of locally made Zambian cheeses, chevres, a brie-like cheese, a Cantal like cheese – oh my heaven.
On the last night, I scurried with the crew to meet the hikers down the road about three kilometers by the river. When we got there, the crew set up deck chairs in the shallows of the river, and the hikers got there just as the sun started to go down. There was a huge Goliath heron fishing nearby. There were hot hors d’ouevres, there were mixed drinks and good wine, and a great big full moon rising as the sun went down. Sitting there in that river came a sudden self-awareness: “How cool is this, sitting in the river with Robin Pope watching the sun go down after five days of trekking? Life is good.” It was a thrill.
Dinner that night around the campfire – I think it was fish curry and vegetable curry, a caprese salad (tomatoes with Zambian mozzarella di bufalo), a big green salad with toasted sesame seeds, and something sweet and chocolate for dessert. The meal itself is hazy – the conversation was so good, so much fun, we had a lot of fun with Robin and with our fellow trekkers. And then. . . as the embers started to die down, we could hear a drum, off in the distance, and singing. We could hear clapping. And it came closer. We all fell silent, wondering what this was?
The entire crew approached slowly, all dressed in their best clothes, singing in multi-part harmony, singing Zambian songs, some gospel songs, bush songs. . . moon glowing overhead, the smell of woodsmoke, after a great meal – the singing was haunting and magical, and utterly unforgettable. We were all sad to be ending this adventure, and the beauty and delight of this Mupamadzi concert put it all over-the-top.
The concert ended and we drifted off to bed.
The next day, we broke camp, leaving the Mupamadzi and heading back for Tena Tena. Travelling with Robin Pope, the adventure continues – a huge old boabab tree here, hills they are exploring for future walking treks over there, and uniting it all, Robin’s gentle wry humor and keen observations. Time has no power over Robin, it is the moment and the opportunity that are all important, and our last day is every bit as great an adventure as the first.
There is a lot of world out there – and yet. We know we will be heading for the Robin Pope camps in the South Luangwa Valley again and again.
The link to Robin and Jo Pope’s home page is here.
In addition RPS puts out a wonderful weekly newsletter all about happenings at the camps – new animal babies, leopard killings, flood season, what’s going on at the Kawazaa school, and daily life in the year-round camps. You can subscribe to “It’s Monday” here.