When you leave a place you’ve never seen during the day under the thick of night you become a stranger. Like Alice falling through the rabbit hole, nothing is what it seems. Here, very quickly, the city becomes a memory, erased by long, straight roads that tunnel your vision, that blur when they kiss the horizon. The Great West Road, one long straight shot clear across a country so big we’ve nearly made it across the continent. The first signs of night’s betrayal linger behind us, sullen and low like the smell off last night’s ashtray. The coldest hour. Right before the sun cracks open the night, bugs and birds usher her over the horizon in a misty crescendo. Coaxing her, like today she might not make it, like she may not want to. But she is like a river, relentless even at her calmest — pushing fourth. The cold air cocooning my face, kindly preparing me for the heat to come — some respite.
We are leaving Lusaka, after a month of only going east and then barely so, we are heading west. Straight across a country I stumbled my way into, the least likely of all possible plans — like most of my life. Its 5 am, lying in the back of the cruiser, watching the road rewind I can see her peeping over the edge, tentative but fiery, playing coy. Ahead, only darkness and the odd headlight — I am definitely a stranger on this long road west.
It was nine hours before we hit the city of Mongu. The last outpost on a cliff we had unwittingly been making our way towards, surely the spot where Mufasa told Simba that “everything the light touches is our kingdom.” Below, a drop into infinite flood plains, we had to get across them and then some. Fisherman walked on water, their bwatos flat against the marsh, slowly strumming their way from one pond to another. The original gondoliers. Cattle moved lethargic, the afternoon heat at its zenith, their arresting hides reflected a confident sun, transformed since dawn. The smell of dried, salted fish lapped through the car with every cluster of thatched roofs we passed, a comforting smell I’ve loved since a childhood spent crawling through kitchens in Bangkok. The modern highway an iron snake slithering above a wet, damp marsh that still seemed thirsty. The rains have been timid.
We crossed the Zambezi River to meet Kalabo on the other side, the last city before Liuwa Plains National Park. Kalabo was quiet and tidy, the polite way of saying she was lonely. Sitting outside Liuwa, she was home to the Liuwa View Guesthouse, a rundown American old-west style building front with chipped paint and a nice enough view for the unknowing visitor. The kind who stops at the first place named after their destination and without checking a map puts a stake in the ground, a proper Christopher Columbus ‘finding’ India in the West Indies. Kalabo must be the sister of the prodigal son, it is in Kalabo that the tar road ends.
By the time we made it across the pontoon and dropped our tires, the sand on the banks of the river seemed determined to trial our conviction. After twelve hours west, we weren’t easily dissuaded. Three women in a Landcruiser three decades old, we were Alice and we were in wonderland. The sand became firmer, compacted by a cheeky bit of rain, enough to hydrate a few watering holes, enough to momentarily quench the thirst of thousands of wildebeest. Our great migration west was about to encounter their great migration south.
The sun, tired from showing us the way to her resting spot, started making her way to bed. The tall elephant grass dipped in gold illuminated the path to camp. Miles of treasure glittered the largest, widest, flattest most beautiful bit of earth I’d ever seen. The wildebeest moved together breaking the gilded waves across their chests, protecting their yearlings, debating the threat of our large bumbling tank. Backlight deceived the zebra, who moved like pregnant donkeys. The white stripes a hazy pink by the time we were close enough to see their banded bodies, close enough to make them scurry off.
At camp we arrived during my beloved hour, just after the sun had set, when the grass smells cut and a little bit wet and the air is thick with the heat of day and the long night unrolls ahead leisurely like an intricate carpet. In my tent, everything felt hundreds of miles away — because it was. Lightning splintered the sky, a lizard darted across the tarp above my head, by the time my heart had gone quiet, my chest sinking and raising, lungs filling with a sweet air, I heard a lion call his sister from miles away, a goodnight chat between siblings, like we were all just kids in a bunkroom at camp.
When you arrive in a place you’ve never seen during the day under the thick of night you become a stranger.
And just like that, for the first time in a long time, the least likely of possible plans felt exactly where I was meant to be.
Thank you to the lovely people who made this trip possible, and to the conservationists who renew my hope in the world we are leaving to our children.