Set off on a self-drive road trip beneath the big skies of Zambia: roaming among big game by day, pitching under the stars at night and casting off in a canoe at the road’s end
Rules 47-54 of the Zambian Highway Code concern animals. They offer considered advice like: “Do not carry animals on vehicle roof-tops”; “If you have an animal in your car… make sure it cannot disturb you”; and, most worrying of all, “Be careful around larger game animals (which) may charge your vehicle, causing damage and endangering your life.”
For further study on this last point, an excellent resource is YouTube. On YouTube, you can carefully identify hazards such as: monkeys prising windscreen wipers off a Land Rover, a rhino enthusiastically sinking its horn into a Renault Megane, an elephant flipping a minibus on its side. This is all required homework if, like me and photographer Phil Lee Harvey, you are about to set out on a 1,287km road trip across Zambia in a Toyota Land Cruiser, driving unsupervised among the big beasts of the African bush.
“The important thing is to respect all animals,” suggests Mark Geraghty, a representative of 4×4 service Safari Drive, handing me the keys to said Land Cruiser in the parking lot of Lusaka’s airport. “The animals were here before you. Remember: in the wild, anything can happen! ”
Where most safari-goers travel in the company of a knowledgeable guide – on hand to deal with difficult situations, supplying complimentary mints in times of acute crisis – on a self-drive safari, you are your own guide, driver, navigator, cook, first-aider and engineer. Some say self-driving heightens the best elements of safari: the dizzy sense of being truly alone in the wilderness; the tantalising proximity to things that can theoretically slice, stomp on and poison you in terrifying and fascinating ways. There are few places better for such an adventure than Zambia: among the most sparsely inhabited countries in Africa, with remote swathes of forest and grassland bisected by mighty rivers and arrow- straight highways that stretch to the horizon.
We set out on one such highway, the Great East Road, bound for the wilderness country of South Luangwa National Park. Soon, the chaotic traffic jams of the capital Lusaka retreat behind us. Potholes appear in the road: big craters that jolt the car, send loose items airborne and instantly scramble any eggs stored in the on-board fridge.
These potholes are all the more difficult to dodge when you’re distracted by a landscape of exquisite loveliness. At first, low forested hills rise on all sides, growing taller as the road skirts the border with Mozambique, before lapsing into infinite green plains on the cusp of the Luangwa Valley. Homecoming schoolchildren shuffle along the roadside, bound for villages where bonfire smoke swirls about thatched roofs.
In the market town of Chipata, people sell groundnuts through the car window. A policeman flags us down at a checkpoint for a discussion on Wayne Rooney. Mostly we are alone on the road. Now and then, freight trucks from Malawi, Congo and Zimbabwe barge past (seemingly unsure if Zambians drive on the left or on the right: most going for a compromise option and driving down the middle with horn blaring).
Night descends swiftly, and soon the headlights pick the shapes of sleeping villages out of the gloom. An owl swoops into the glare of the beams. It is many hours before we arrive at the gates of the national park, and the last hiccups of tarmac give way to rusty-brown earth.