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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

― Precious Mwansa-Chisa

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The long walk to Kanyangala – gateway to Lower Zambezi

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In October 2020, a few friends and I hiked 42 km on the Old Leopards Hill Road, from the Leopards Hill Bat Cave over the Zambezi Escarpment to Kanyangala Primary School. We had two main objectives, the first one to raise awareness and much-needed funds for Kanyangala School. Our second objective was to encourage a spirit of adventure and exploration through domestic tourism. As with every adventure we had our fair share of highs and lows. However, in the end, it was a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

Our two-day journey began early on Saturday 24 October, Independence Day. I arrived at Crossroads Mall at 6:45 in the morning, 15 minutes late. By this time, half the team had already started off, and the other half were still on their way. We had failed our first teamwork challenge, to get everyone to rendezvous and leave together! Around 7 we were all on the way to the cave. The Leopards Hill Bat Cave is located about 50 km south-east of Lusaka. You head out along Leopards Hill Road all the way up to Katoba Basic School. At the school, there is a junction with a sign that reads: left to Chongwe and, right to Chirundu. You take the right to Chirundu and after 500m you will see the “Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses”, take the dirt track just before the church. At this point, it’s about 1 km to the cave. Ask for directions from the locals to avoid getting lost as the cave entrance is not visible from the track. Upon arrival, you will be received by members of the community who will offer to take you on a “tour” of the caves. I had given my hiking team a heads up and asked everyone to give a “small token of appreciation” for the tour that we gave to the headman of the area. What I did forget to ask people to bring was a head torch! The bat cave is a National Heritage Site (archaeological) under the National Heritage Commission. It’s an impressive site with thousands of bats squeaking and screeching above your head as you slowly descend into the belly of the cave. The deeper you go, the darker it gets; without a torch, the tour would be almost impossible. After a short walk through, we saw the literal and figurative light at the end of the tunnel! I strongly recommend you visit if you have not already. It is a scary but exciting experience. After regrouping we began our long day of hiking.

The first 10 km of the Old Leopards Hill Road is tarred* and generally downhill and we did it without any difficulty. But after that its gravel all the way to Lower Zambezi. We bid farewell to the first group of hikers who turned around at 5 km and the second group turned back at about 7 km. (They had planned beforehand to only walk a short distance). From about 25 we were now 10. The more we walked, the more scenic the walk was. It was beautiful! The simplicity of rural life always fascinates me. There were many villages perched on the top of a hill, some of them carefully painted with different coloured clay. There was the occasional tiny shop made of burnt bricks that had an insaka ­(thatched shelter) next to it. Under the shade of the insaka, the elders of the villages enjoyed some local alcoholic brews. Some waved us on almost as if to say “well-done keep going.” Some asked us where on earth we were going. We smiled back, we waved back, we pressed on. Before we knew it we had left civilisation behind, there were no more villages, just us. About 20 km later we came to the base of the escarpment. We had earlier planned on hiking to the top and setting up camp for the night there. However, due to the heat and lack of water, we decided to set up camp at the base of the escarpment. By this time the last of the day hikers were taken back to Lusaka. We were now down to five explorers.

Our campsite a was simple but beautiful. We set up by a dry riverbed with the escarpment standing tall above us. That night we sat around a cozy campfire had our supper and told stories before our bodies reminded us to get an early night’s rest to regain enough energy to climb up and over the escarpment and cross the finish line.

At sunrise on the next day, we broke camp and prepared for the dreadful climb. It was a bittersweet experience. We had spectacular views all around, however, we felt like our legs would give up under our bodies, but still, we kept pressing on! We made it to the top of the escarpment, rested a few minutes, and then began our descent into the Lower Zambezi Valley. Every now and then a vehicle passed us. We had to fight the temptation not to crack and ask for a ride to the school (or back to Lusaka). Along the way Jack, the headteacher of Kanyangala School, and a few of his students came up the road to meet us. This filled us with hope that we didn’t have long to go till we got to the school.

We finally reached Kanyangala School where we received a thunderous warm welcome from the community. Even though our time there was short we were grateful to be there with the community. We inspected the materials that had been bought so far and witnessed the completion of the new goat kraal that we had raised the funds for. We even had time to join in the dancing and singing. Our time there reminded me not to take anything for granted and the importance of community and working together. The fundraising, the walk and the refurbishment of the school was all a team effort.

Something that we spoke about on our journey is how blessed we are in Zambia to be able to freely explore almost anywhere in our country. We enjoy peace and security in all corners of Zambia. What was even more amazing was the fact that standing where we were in that little rural community school in the Chiawa Game Management Area (GMA), we were less than 20 km from the mighty Zambezi, a massive expanse of water that starts off as a trickle in a dambo hundreds of kilometers away. The Chiawa GMA sits adjacent to the Lower Zambezi National Park (LZNP). Both the Chiawa GMA and the LZNP boast a wide variety of wild animals, big and small. Because of its proximity to Lusaka, Lower Zambezi is a favorite destination for many domestic tourists. The area is serviced by plenty of lodges, campsites, and tour operators that cater to a diverse clientele, and offer activities such as game drives, walking safaris, canoe safaris, boat cruises and fishing.

I was privileged to work in Lower Zambezi for two years, and in that time I fell in love with the warm, kind and loving people of the area, the magnificence of the Zambezi River and the diverse wildlife. Given the chance to repeat this journey, I would. Again and again and again. But this time, maybe not walking and not in the October heat!

*At the time of writing the Old Leopards Hill Road was being worked on and will be tarred all the way.

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