|The rugged road goes over the Muchinga Escarpment.|
|Stuck. Our 4x4 vehicle gets stuck in the sand in the South Luangwa National Park.|
A PUFF of hot air hits my face as soon as I step out of the air-conditioned vehicle. It is a harsh welcome to Nabwalya, a vast chiefdom that lies 130 kilometres east of Mpika, in the Luangwa valley.
At the small Catholic mission, the only place that has a few Spartan rooms for lodging, I’m warned to never leave the door to my chalet open, to avoid snakes slipping in.
“There are many snakes around here. Yesterday I killed a spitting cobra right there,” says Father Weldemar Potrapeluk, pointing at the spot he killed the venomous serpent. He is the parish priest. One of his dogs is blind in one eye after an encounter with the spitting cobra.
I needn’t any stronger warning.
And yet, the first warning I got coming to Nabwalya was not about snakes, but the road that snakes over mountains and down the valley, connecting this remote area to Mpika town.
So how do you get to Nabwalya? By four-wheel drive vehicle, only.
That is so official that on the turn-off from the Great North Road to Nabwalya, a poster says “Strictly 4x4.”
The 110 kilometre road, if it can be called that at all, is an old elephant trail. Many years ago, the elephants made this trail as they hiked from the valley to the plateau, crossing the Muchinga Escarpment, the geographical feature that gives this province its name.
Then the humans took it up, but did little to improve on it. It still resembles an elephant trail, and offers a huge challenge to both vehicle and driver.
In places, the road is so jagged that it makes even walking a challenge. Twice while trying to help the driver negotiate his way on the steep slopes and between rocks, I slipped over the loose stones, bruising my hand.
At several intervals, the road cuts across streams and gullies – I counted 28 of them. Nature must have been very busy here. The streams are completely dry now, but come November when the rains are in full swing, they will come alive, rushing towards the Luangwa River.
The Luangwa River, itself, is nothing but a large seasonal stream that gets bone dry between rains.
There are no bridges across the streams, which makes this road impassable for half-year.
After covering 60 kilometres of the journey, our 4x4 pick-up gets stuck in the soft sand, digging in as the driver tries to power out, and resting on its diff. For 20 minutes, we are probably sitting duck for the lions out there, for this road runs for several kilometres between the South Luangwa National Park and the Munyamadzi game management area. My only comfort lies in the armed wildlife police officer accompanying us.
In other places, the road is overlaid with pebbles, while some parts are dried up marshlands with baked clay that bears footprints of various game, including elephant and buffalo.
But the biggest challenge is the Muchinga Escarpment. On top of the mountain, there is a rusty poster warning motorists about the steepness of the road.
It is said that many first-time drivers on this road give up at this point, daunted by the escarpment, which offers a five-kilometre incline. Driving down is hard, driving up is even harder.
The rugged road zigzags on the mountainside, and on a good clear day, you can see the road from 20 kilometres, cutting through the expansive wilderness.
Then you drive into the Luangwa valley, with its punishing heat, and if you drive with the windows open, there are the pesky tsetse flies with their stinging bites to contend with.
With this tough terrain, a distance that would take about one hour on a normal road takes us six hours, and is a great toll on our bodies and minds.
Many who drive this road vow never to do it again.
But spare a thought for the 13,800 inhabitants of Nabwalya, who do not have the luxury of a four-wheel drive vehicle, and who have no choice but to travel on this road.
Actually, to get to Mpika, many of the villagers walk. It takes about three days to make the journey, passing through the Munyamadzi game management area, carrying food to eat along the way.
In the rainy season, the villagers have to cross a number of streams, usually wading in high waters, plus crossing the Munyamadzi River at four points by canoe.
Many, especially women, have never travelled outside Nabwalya.
Fr. Potrapeluk thinks two-thirds of the women here have never been to Mpika. Yet, sadly, two-thirds may even be an underestimation.
When I ask a group of 10 young nursing mothers if any of them has been to Mpika, not a single hand goes up.
Since she was born here in 1982, Chiluba Chibesa of Chilima village has never seen any better civilisation or modernity than what she sees around the small Catholic mission – the chief’s palace, the small secondary school, a clinic and some houses belonging to wildlife officers.
“I’ve never been to the Boma [Mpika town]. What am I going to do there?” she asks.
When she has a bit of money to buy her basic groceries, she gives it to her husband whenever he makes the three-day journey.
But even for the men, the journey is a hard undertaking.
“When our husbands arrive back, they are thinner from the walking,” says Chiluba.
The mother of three says when this place finally has a road, she can go and sell mangoes, fish and chickens in town and earn some money to buy her groceries.
“Things at Jairos’ shop are expensive,” she complains.
Jairos Zimba is one of the most prominent grocers in Chilima village.
When Mr Zimba started his grocery business in 2003, he used to walk to Mpika to buy goods for sale, which he would carry on his head.
But now that his business has grown, he gets supplies from Lundazi. He cycles down to the Luangwa River, crosses by canoe if the river is in flow, then gets on a vehicle to the small town in Eastern Province.
There are only two vehicles the villagers rely on in this area; one belongs to the National Parks and Wildlife Department and the other to the Catholic mission.
Vehicles are a rare sight here. In fact, you can drive the whole 110 kilometre stretch without meeting any vehicle. And wherever we drive in the villages and wildlife camps, our vehicle is soon surrounded by a horde of children in tatty clothes, their darting eyes full of curiosity.
Yet in the rainy season, even a four-wheel drive vehicle is useless here.
Fr. Potrapeluk, who drives a Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with a winch, has had to walk to Mpika a number of times in the rainy season.
And he has a permanent reminder of the hardships on the rugged road – a missing right thumb.
When I ask him how he lost his thumb, he responds rather humorously:
“I did not lose it; I still have it in a jar in the house.”
Once when his vehicle got stuck in a river, the priest decided to winch it out, but he pushed the wrong button, severing his thumb.
“Many times I’ve been stuck on that road,” he says with a Polish accent.
Some here believe Nabwalya is the most backward place in Zambia, cut off from the rest of the country.
Yet with all these hardships, Mfuwe Constituency, where Nabwalya lies, gave President Lungu one of the highest votes, by percentage, in the August 11 polls. He got 11,640, while his main rival, Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development, got 929 votes.
Many here voted for the PF with the hope it will bring the road, which it has already started constructing.
In March, President Lungu visited Nabwalya. Many locals, including the chief, say it was the first time in history that a President had visited the area, and they still talk about it as if it happened yesterday.
It is hard to think that successive governments have for decades not done much to connect Nabwalya to the rest of the district.
Perhaps now there is hope as government plans to divide Mpika, which is the largest district in the country, into three in order to increase development.