Exploring the wilds of the Luangwa Valley on two wheels: tales from an epic Moto Safari
“Are you carrying a gun?” Already a little on edge, I cautiously responded “no.” The guard to wildlife reserve noted that detail in his book, closed it and walked toward the gate. He raised the long wooden pole guarding the dirt road forward, leading onward into the managed game area. A variety of large animal skulls were stacked next to the guard house.
I was deep in the Luangwa River valley. For years, I had circled this area on the map because it was so intriguing. Extremely isolated, the Luangwa River runs through some of the most remote terrain in Zambia.
On one side, the river lays in the shadow of the Muchinga escarpment to the north, one of the last geological remnants of the Great Rift Valley. To the south, the river is flanked by a smattering of game reserves, and the border to Malawi. There are no major roads through this area, which is largely protected by national parks. Few overlanders came this way, let alone motorbike travelers. On this trip I was heading all the way up the Luangwa River from south to north, through this wild territory.
I revved the engine and accelerated forward, watching the guard close the boom behind me. I sped through the winding dirt track running along the river. The terrain was varied, and road mostly sandy. From wide open savannah, to forested riverbeds, to old growth forests that looked like something out of a fantasy novel. I didn’t see any vehicles. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see a big cat chasing me. I knew that elephants, not lions, were the biggest threat. But still, all I could imagine were those chase scenes from Jurassic Park. Gate after gate after gate. I moved further into the wilderness, moving through each game reserve. Northward along the river I motored along through the wild, desolate landscape.
Later that evening I sat high atop a riverbank, watching the sunset turn from a golden, majestic blood orange to a light purple stretching across the entire sky.
Below me lay a wide swath of the Luangwa River, and I could see a family of elephants emerging from the tree line, crossing the exposed, dry cracked riverbed to reach the water’s edge. I had stopped for the night and set up camp in the trees just beyond the river. I had been advised not to travel at dust, because elephants routinely crossed the road from the forest to the river. In that moment I was glad I was viewing from afar and had chatted to some guards an hour ago. Nearly 10 hippos were submerged in the river, making their unmistakable calls as the elephants quietly drank from the river, as the glow from the sunset slowly faded into darkness. This was night one. I slept in my tent underneath the stars on a clear night in the dry season, with the sounds of wildlife around me.
Small villages lay in between the game management areas spread throughout the valley. Brick houses with thatched roofs rose out of the tall, dried grasses that lined the side of the road. Smoke lazily rose through people’s outdoor kitchens as they prepared lunch. I was driving through and hungry, and by this point had run out of food. My fuel levels were also quite low. By this point I was several days in, and I needed a refuel. But I was past Mfuwe, and there would be no fuel stations, or major towns from now on. The nearest shop was hundreds of kilometers away. But wherever there were people, there would be food and fuel, I just had to find it.
I approached one of the houses and slowed down, the dust from the dry road settling around me as I removed my helmet. “Mwapoleni mukwai ba mayo!” I said with a grin, greeting the woman who was churning Nshima over a fire next to the road. In a series of broken iciBemba words I asked if I could join for lunch in exchange for some Kwacha. “Kalibu, kalibu,” she agreed before I could finish, cracking a huge smile and laughing at the mzungu who was speaking iciBemba. Technically this wasn’t Bemba land, but it was close enough and that’s the only local language I knew. Grateful for the food and hospitality, I sat down in the shade and entertained the many children as lunch was prepared.
Fuel was next on the list. After our meal of nshima and boiled sweet potato leaves, I asked where I could find fuel. Suddenly a group of men and young boys appeared ready to help. One of the guys who could speak some English volunteered to show me where to go, and much to everyone’s excitement and laughter I invited him to hop on the back of the bike to direct me firsthand. Off we went, scouting through the village. Eventually we found a few containers in the corner of someone’s home. I filled up, averting my eyes to the somewhat dirty fuel sloshing around the cutoff plastic bottle neck, whirling its way into my tank.
I packed up to an audience of my new friends. “Take a photo of us” they urged as I was about to go. I looked at the group, thinking it was a joke, but everyone looked with very serious faces. “Put it in a geography textbook and tell them this is Zambia,” one of the guys said in earnest. The whole group eagerly posed as I snapped a picture. We all laughed as I showed them their photo.
The further north along the river I went, the more remote and less traveled the road became. I was now approaching North Luangwa National Park.
There were only two roads that go over the Muchinga escarpment, connecting the Luangwa River valley (where I was) to the major highway and towns on the other side. One of the roads leads directly into South Luangwa National Park, and the other into North Luangwa. Both were dirt track 4x4 routes, quite notorious for being difficult. My plan was to reach North Luangwa and take that route up and over the mountains back into ‘civilization.’
Theoretically this was a good plan. But there were two caveats. The first was crossing the Luangwa River, which is one of the four largest rivers in Zambia and a major tributary of the Zambezi. While it was the dry season, the river is still quite large and deep in some places while also being full of wildlife like hippos, crocs, and maybe thirsty lions. The second problem was that motorcycles are technically not allowed in the national parks.
I pulled into a small rustic campsite owned by the local community, situated across the river from the gate to North Luangwa. I spoke with several conservation officers who were stationed there. I pitched my request to cross the river at their pontoon, and take the road through the park, eventually reaching Mpika. Much negotiation ensued, as the rangers attempted to convince the other park officials to let me through as the sun went down. I anxiously waited, setting up camp. If they said no, I wasn’t sure what I would do. It would be a long haul to go around the escarpment to the north, and I’d be heading back into very rural territory, low again on fuel and food.
At dusk, a dusty Land Cruiser pulled into camp with a dead water buck a tourist had just shot as part of a hunting safari. The rangers called me over and invited me for a supper of game meat stew and I gladly obliged. The radio chattered while we ate. We were in an enclosure of dried grasses, because “lions and hippos” routinely walked through.
Back around the fire, I sat examining the map with my head torch, waiting. One of the rangers arguing my case came up and delivered the verdict. I wouldn’t be able to go through the park, nor would I be able to cross the river at the pontoon bridge. They tried as hard as they could to convince the chain of command to let me through, and everyone besides the boss at the top was on my side.
“What am I supposed to do now!?” I said feeling quite stunned. Completely relaxed, the officer smiled, and said “ah nooo, don’t worry. There’s another road. It goes around the side of the park, just opposite the boundary.” He explained that technically this area was a reserve, not a National Park, so motorcycles were allowed. “Where is this road?!” I responded, very surprised. How had I not seen this before? “Oh, but it’s not on the map.” The ranger proceeded to tell me a variety of directions I had to write down. Left at the airfield. Continue to the village. Left again at the sign to the school. Keep going until you get to the river. Once you cross the river, there’s only that one road – “you can’t get lost.” He chuckled.
Can’t get lost?! This road wasn’t on the map or any GPS. No cell phone service for a long time. Being a reserve, it would be devoid of people and potential help. I was sure I’d be the only vehicle on the road. Plus, I had to find a way to cross the mighty Luangwa still. I smiled nervously. If this hadn’t already been an adventure, it surely was now.
The next morning, I found myself staring across the wide and rushing the Luangwa from the bank. It was huge.
Being dry season, the water level was down and manageable. The riverbed lay several meters below the high riverbank and stretched for fifty meters to the other high embankment. A ribbon of fast-moving water cut its own path through the sandy center. During the rainy season, I guessed that the whole width of the riverbed would be filled.
It was impossible to tell how deep it was at certain spots, and which line I should take. I wandered along the edge, thinking. One wrong move here could drown the bike and cause serious issues. Across the river I spotted a husband and wife washing their clothes in the river. “Mwabombeni mukwai,” I shouted, greeting them. The husband came over, and through a series of verbal and nonverbal communication I asked if he would test out the water depth, since he was already knee deep in the river. He was very happy to help, and we tried out several spots to find the best area to cross.
We found a line that looked the best. It was as deep as the front wheel but wouldn’t reach the airbox which is all I was concerned about. I walked back to my bike and fired it up. I was down on the riverbed, and there was about ten meters of soft, loose sand on either side of the water. I had to make it through that sand with enough speed to keep momentum through the water. There was no telling what would happen when I hit the water, and the wet sand beneath.
Full of adrenaline I pushed through to the other side of the water, with my new friend cheering the whole way. I stopped on the other side, and we celebrated, taking his photo next to the bike. I waved goodbye as I hurdled up the high embankment, throttling into the vast wilderness beyond.
I was across the river and officially alone on the road around the National Park. I breathed a sigh of relief, but it didn’t last long. I had many more hours of riding to reach the main park gate and out of danger, all through uncharted territory that happened to be a remote section of protected nature teeming with wildlife. I thought back to my ranger friend’s instructions. He ensured me that once I crossed the Luangwa, I would run into a series of ranger stations, each one of them expecting me to pass through.
This was certainly the most epic riding of the trip I had done so far. After the river crossing, I started climbing up through the mountains, gaining elevation. The forest was thick and seemingly untouched.
In a few points I popped out into a clearing and could see the vast rolling hills from where I had come. The past several days I had been deeply remote. But nothing like this. I was traversing an unmarked road that skirted the edge of one of the most isolated national parks in the country.
About halfway through the journey around the park I stopped at another gate. This time, the guard came out with an AK-47. He opened the boom and said, “Wait, follow me.” Confused, I watched as he hopped on a bicycle. In flip flops, with the AK slung over his shoulder he pedaled off down the road, looking back over his shoulder and motioning me forward. I continued, following him slowly, still perplexed. We turned the corner, and in a rush of movement I saw the flash of white ivory and the backend of an elephant disappear into the trees. Startled, I could no longer see the elephant, but watched as the treetops violently shook in its path, making way for the 5-ton mammal fleeing deeper into the forest. So that was why I was being escorted. Thank you, Mr. guard.
With each kilometer I felt more at ease, knowing I was closer to my destination. On the northern side of the escarpment the environment changed completely. Dry, yellow grasses and savannah like underbrush to lush green rainforest. It felt like I could be in Uganda, or the Congo. I continued up and down the rocky grades, finding peace and meditation in the solidarity on the lonely road. I wondered when the last tourist came through here.
Later in the afternoon I finally popped out at the entrance gate, glad to have made it. The ranger back at camp had been right – there was only one road and I couldn’t get lost. Upon leaving the park I headed north to find refuge in the Kapishya hot springs. I needed a long soak in the hot water and a proper rest.
It had been about ten days in total, crossing roughly 700 kilometers of pure 4x4 track through the bush. It was one of the most remote trips I’ve ever been on. But there was always someone to lend a helping hand when it was needed. Everyone I encountered was welcoming and eager to help get me through the trip, which I was grateful for.
The sun sank into the horizon, giving off a fiery orange glow. Throughout the valley I could see tall smoke streams rising from people’s homes. In awe I rode off, chasing the sunset before me feeling completely content.
Words and Images by Adam Lyman