Lusaka — Bunnies, Zebras, and Animals of the Night

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The scene at 6am in Lilongwe, Malawi where the buses depart. Fish sales!
The scene at 6am in Lilongwe, Malawi where the buses depart. Fish sales!

After our Thanksgiving meal on our last night Malawi, our group of five nomads realized it was time to move on.  We departed Lilongwe early in the morning on a 7am bus (which meant we were all up at 5am and at the bus station by 6:15am). Our next stop would be Zambia. The bus from Lilongwe (Malawi) to Lusaka (Zambia) would be not only a long ride, but also an expensive one (almost $40 each ticket). This would be our first wake-up call to the fact that transport in Zambia was much more expensive than it’s neighboring countries. The bus itself was a normal sized bus that had individual seats for everyone. There was no cramming as many people onboard as possible which meant room to breath and move your legs (not just wiggle a toe like on a lot of other buses). We were off to a good start! Before our bus left someone came onboard and said a prayer in Chichewa (there are over 70 languages in Malawi but this is the official language of Malawi and spoken by about 57% of the population). To our surprise the bus left pretty much right on time and by 7:15am we were zipping down the one long, somewhat shaggy, but still paved road that we would take the entire way to our destination.

Overall the bus was a comfortable one, however the extreme loud music of maybe thirteen songs played on repeat for the entire trip felt like some strange form of torture.  We were used to the loud music on the buses but after ten hours it just seems to get louder and louder.  We would have even given up our free coca-colas (a major bonus!) for an hour of silence on this trip.

Crossing the Border

The border crossing between Malawi and Zambia was probably the most ‘controlled’ border crossing we had seen since arriving and traveling in Eastern Africa. There was not only some kind of organization to the crossing process (and by this we mean it was clearly marked where to get your exit and entry stamps) but they also took all the baggage off of the bus and loosely checked the contents of each person’s bag. We weren’t completely sure what they were looking for in the bags, but our dirty underwear seemed to pass their test without any problem.

An orderly system.
An orderly system.

This slightly more organized and watched over crossing was surprising to us since what we witnessed after the crossing, along each side of the very worn down only paved road, is nothing more than a few grass huts.  Watching the scenery pass by us for the following eight hours of the trip gave us a good first glimpse of what most of life in Zambia looked like.  Besides the occasional clusters of mud and grass huts, you would also see the occasional goats and cows out grazing on whatever vegetation they could find. Other than these very slight signs of life the country seemed very untouched.  What we didn’t realize at the border crossing was that it was only a hint into what we would soon discover when we reached the capital.

The one paved road in this part of the country.  It was a long journey with lots of music but at least we got a coke!
The one paved road in this part of the country. It was a long journey with lots of music but at least we got a coke!

Arriving to Lusaka

When the bus finally rolled into the town of Lusaka after 12 long hours all of our jaws dropped to the floor. We had to rub our sleepy eyes to make sure we were awake and really seeing what we were seeing. Outside the windows of the bus the dark streets were lit up with huge malls, shopping markets, christmas light decorating things, and other scenes that reminded us of suburbia in the western world. Were we really in the same country that we had crossed the border into eight hours ago with nothing but nature and grass huts around us? It gave us a strange, almost indescribable feeling seeing all these things after the last couple months we had spent in Africa.

Zambia ranks 163 (out of 187) on the human development index scale.  We knew this before coming to the country, which was why we were a bit shocked the border crossing seemed so much more developed.  Armed with this little factoid of knowledge we had, paired with our first views of the countryside you can understand why we were so confused at what we saw.  The fog would soon start to lift after our first few days in Lusaka.  We would learn that the income disparity in this country was extremely high and the inequality divide between those living in countryside villages and those living in the cities was incredibly dramatic.

While having the option to buy things like cheese (even blue cheese) and chiabatta bread with olives was nice, it also made our hearts sink a little to see the commercialism. After being in parts of the world that in many ways remained untouched (and in some senses unspoiled) by all things like malls, and huge shopping centers, and Christmas music, it was hard to acclimate.

Levy Junction Lusaka
Ok we won’t lie — the grilled cheese sandwiches (with bacon, grilled onion and tomatoes) that we were made possible by the supplies at the large grocery stores were pretty damn good. Shout out to our chef Chris for this amazing meal!

Once we had gathered our luggage and again pushed past the many many people trying to get us in their taxi or carry our luggage for us, we devised a plan to check out a couple hostels nearby. It turns out that there are four well known hostel options within walking distance to the bus station. The first place we checked out was Flinstones. After a quick look at the claustrophobic dorm room we decided to try our luck with the others. The price vs room quality here wasn’t great. Next up was Broad’s Backpackers. This place had a lower price for the dorms (although it still seemed high to us for African standards in a capital – but again we were slowly learning Zambia is just a bit more expensive for travelers unfortunately) and the dorm room we found to be slightly nicer. Kululu Backpackers was not much further down the road.

This ended up being our winner. While Amanda and Ben still went on to check out another spot, Lusaka Backpacker’s, it ended up being more expensive all the rooms were taken before our posse could get over there in time. But all happens for a reason as we would soon discover.

Kitty v Bunny at Kululu Backpackers Hostel.
Kitty v Bunny at Kululu Backpackers Hostel.

While James, Chris, and Izzy took dorm beds, we set up their tent outside in the camping area. It turns out Kululu is one of the only places in the downtown of Lusaka that offers a camping option. This was to be a huge benefit to us as it saved quite a bit of money. The place appeared nice with a kitchen area for cooking, clean bathrooms and hot showers, and even a pool. This however would take a bit of a turn while we were there.  Not expecting things to last too long is something that becomes part of how life is lived, especially in Africa. On day two we began to experience the water outages. This was specific to Kululu, and supposedly the water pump had been overheating. They decided that in order to fix this they would turn off the water for extended periods of time and would turn it back on randomly for a couple hours here and there. Yes, most people would complain, and had we been paying the dorm rate we may have. But most people at Kululu seemed to take it in stride. These sorts of things paired with power outages, lack of costumer service, and other unknown obstacles seems to become part of the nature of how life works. And the fact was that we still were able to get some bathing done in the small timeframes where the water was running. This was enough for us, we were thankful for the running warm water when it was there.  And we still enjoyed reading our books by the pool in the mornings, even if it did turn to a beautiful emerald green because the water wasn’t filtering through anymore.

 

We also soon discovered that Kululu was actually then name for an African Brer Rabbit. Kalulu the Hare is the hero of many Zambian folk tales, always outwitting beasts larger and stronger than he. We found this out because we quickly noticed the many rabbits that were hopping around the grounds and trying to sneak into our tent. There were more bunnies than we were able to count and their friendly presence definitely added to the entire ambiance of the place and the stay as occasionally you would be talking in the dorm room and a bunny would hop out from beneath your bed and sniff your toiletries bag.

Getting to Know Lusaka

On our first night at Kululu we were invited to join a large group who were apparently in the middle of birthday celebrations poolside.  We soon learned that MJ was the birthday boy of the evening.  Both he and his friends were very friendly and all were currently living in Lusaka.  MJ was Indian, but had been raised in Zambia most his life. He was turning 22 that night and had chosen his local hangout here at Kululu (which was nearby his home) to hold the celebration. All of the friends celebrating with him were either locals, ex-pats here on contract work or working with NGOs, or grad students here for their studies and writing their thesis. It was an interesting mix and spending time with this group gave us a glimpse of the divide between how most ex-pats, implants, and those working in Lusaka lived in comparison to the population in the villages throughout the rest of the country. Amanda was excited to discover that hookah was a nightly tradition which the group would have in the bar area, bringing their own Manchester United hookah from home.  She took note of this and was sure to join one of these evening hookah chill out sessions over the next couple days.

On a tame evening at Kululu with both backpackers and locals.
On a tame evening at Kululu with both backpackers and locals.

Lusaka wasn’t as much a destination for us as a launching point. We had come here because we wanted to regroup, make a plan, and gather info about places to travel, and options for canoeing and safaris along the Zambezi River (which forms the border between Zambia) and figure our our next steps. Again, other than embassies and shopping malls, there wasn’t much to see or do in Lusaka from a cultural perspective. While hanging out with the local group that frequented Kululu everyday was nice, we didn’t want to linger here too long. We were in luck that on the first day while trying to organize our thoughts and plans we ran into Bastian. We had ventured over to Lusaka Backpacker’s in hopes of using the free internet they had. While we were struggling to get an internet connection (their internet happened to be down during this time) Bastian had offered we use his wifi hotspot from his phone. Ben accepted the offer and casual conversation followed. By the end of twenty minutes Ben had learned that Bastian actually worked in Zambia at the Kasanka National Park in the northern part of the county. It happened to be the peak time of the year for a well known (among Zambians at least) great bat migration. Bastian was organizing a trip for a group of US Peace Corps volunteers and had extra space if we wanted to join. The rate he offered for us was the same as for the Peace Corps volunteers, which was relatively low compared to most other safaris and tours. While we didn’t commit to it right away it looked like a great option and a once in a lifetime kind of experience.

 

Night Out on the Town

There are probably many ways one can enjoy the nightlife in Lusaka. We have no doubt that there are many fancy and high end lounges, dance clubs, and restaurants around Lusaka given the hints we gathered from the malls and stores. In all honesty, we really had no plans to ever go out after dark. As mentioned above, we were here to plan and escape to the nature and unplugged areas as soon as we could.

Our evening spent with Bastian however changed this for Amanda and James. After gathering more details from him about what the bat migration trip included and entailed we decided to spend the evening and share some beers with him. Since he lived on the reserve most the time he didn’t get to enjoy the bars and city life all too often. We started with the ‘happy hour’ at Lusaka Backpacker’s which offered beers for 6 kwacha ($1.20) before heading back over to Kululu. This was our second night a Kululu and we soon learned that this was not only a hostel but also a bar that drew a large local crowd. When we returned this night (maybe about 9pm) with Bastian, it looked like what you might see as a parent coming home at the tail end of a party your kids are throwing at your place while you are out of town. There were glass bottles all over the place on the floor, piled up in corners. People on the outdoor sofas semi-awake or maybe having a innocent make-out session. Others were having a pool tournament.  The music was still blaring and while there weren’t as many people partying as when we had left at 4pm ,there was still a good amount of lingerers.  The entire scene made you both laugh and cringe a little at the same time.

Bastian Singing - Lusaka

We settled at a small table and grabbed another round of beers and played the game “Bastian Can Name the Capitol of Any Country”. By the time it was midnight Bastian was ready to show us a little of the nightlife and offered to take us to some local places nearby. His descriptions of what was to come intrigued Amanda enough that she said she was in (even though a bit tired) and she convinced James to join as well. Just as we were about to head out, a Korean couple that had been out all day came skipping up to the bar of Kululu. Without a blink of an eye Amanda invited them to join the group, which they happily accepted. And with that our funky and beer filled group of four was off for a local nightlife safari.

Our journey began at Alpha Bar. We each found our way to the bar to put a cold beer in our hands and then turned around to watch the scene. Normally when you look at a dance floor it is usually filled with drunk or possibly sober people who are out there to get their groove on. Maybe you may find the occasional woman looking for work (prostitute) sticking out like a sore thumb among this group. Take that scene now and invert it. Here was a dance floor of prostitutes with the occasional happy dancer between them. Now add a few men that are pretending to dance but really looking for a lady in the group. Throw a few pimps (yep, full matching track suits and all with the bling bling accessories) along the outskirts of this group. Visualizing all this yet? Great! Because that was pretty much the scene we were taking in while drinking our beers from the bar. Seriously… check out this link here on Alpha Bar to get other perspectives on it.  I think one person’s description of it as a “true African hooker-bar experience” wraps it up quite nicely.

Eventually Amanda and the Korean couple ventured out to the dance floor. This turned out to be a very unpleasant dancing experience for Amanda as she had to consistently fight off the men and woman who all felt that someone being on the dance floor was a free invitation to rub their booties all up in someones business. The Korean guy did a great job of fending this off with his strange and crazy dance moves paired with a huge smile. Having this new style of dance introduced to the floor, especially by a Korean, was a scene in itself. Let’s just say there aren’t too many Korean guys out busting crazy moves on many dance floors in Zambia. This bar/dance spot was enough entertainment in itself to make a full evenings outing, but our journey was far from over. After maybe twenty minutes total the group had enough of prostitute and pimp watching and decided to go around the corner to Le Triumph Dolphin.

This was actually more of a restaurant that served Chinese food and had a small stage for karaoke. It was definitely way more upscale than Alpha Bar and this reflected in the price of the beer.  The karaoke was exactly the reason Bastian decided to share this spot with us. Immediately we were handed a menu of songs that looked more like a short novel. You would think choosing a song to sing along to would be an easy task but when you are faced with a list of over 1,000 songs for multiple people the process could actually take weeks. Bastian finally made the call and Bohemian Rhapsody was submitted to the DJ. This time around instead of watching others be fools on the dance floor we put ourselves on the pedestal as we belted out our best lyrics together on stage while wearing wigs and hats. Like all good things, our show had to end. After the grand performance we headed out to the road to grab a bite to eat before possibly heading back to the hostel for the night. James and Amanda waited on the street together while Bastian headed into a place to grab some fries.

Looking around as they stood there the awareness of those on the street became more clear.  There were many people begging, most young men, and the poverty in the streets was very present. It was strange the stark contrast between these people in the streets (who were waiting outside these bars hoping to get something off people that came out – be it food or money) and the scene inside the bars with the prostitutes and men who could afford them. If you were to take a snapshot of the entire situation it wouldn’t be something that made the list of making us feel proud of humanity. Just as James and Amanda were absorbing everything around them they heard a screech of a car come barreling down the road. Mind you the street was lined with parked cars on either side with hardly enough room for a single car to drive through, and people were scattered all over the road, either crossing or hanging out and talking. This loud screech was followed by three loud bangs as James and Amanda watched the car swerve from side to side hitting three of the parked cars and a person along the way as people screamed and ran out of the road. The car then took off, not stopping as it went to where ever it was headed. The one minute all this happened was like something you would imagine seeing out of a movie. James was about to cross the road to help the guy that had been hit when he stood up, leaned back against the car behind him and lit a cigarette – like nothing had happened. Many of the other people were stirred up but not the way you would have expected after an incident like this. And with that our decision was made – let’s get the f*ck out of here! As soon as Bastian had his food we headed straight for a taxi (and made sure the driver didn’t reek of alcohol before we got in). We had only been out for two hours but what a jam-packed two hours it was. It was enough to confirm why we hadn’t been going out at night in most places in Africa.

Eureka Camp

After the big night out Amanda and James filled the the rest of the group in on the excitement they had missed the night before. The night had solidified our decision to get out of town and back into nature. We had at this point decided to join Bastian and the Peace Corps group in Kasanka for the bat migration. This gave us two days with nothing to do before we had to bus northward. Taking the advice from our local Indian friend MJ, we headed to Eureka Camp for a night and two days. The farm is only located 10 km outside of Lusaka but feels like it’s a world apart. The camp has many A-frames and bungalows surrounded by spaces to BBQ, there is also space for campers to set up their own tent as well. There is a pool surrounded by lush hedging, and a central bar area with a pool table. The entire camp is surrounded by lots of land as well which is great for mini-nature strolls.  When we arrived, it appeared there were only two other small groups on the huge grounds. Trying to figure the cheapest option for accommodation, we asked the staff if we could put five of us in a 3-bed bungalow. The guy told us he’d ask his boss and get back to us, but for now to put our stuff down. He handed us the key to the A-Frame and never got back to us.  The management wasn’t really a high point here.  With the key in hand we all stayed in the A-Frame together and it didn’t end up causing any problems.

Our relaxing escape from Lusaka madness at the Eureka Camp
Our relaxing escape from Lusaka madness at the Eureka Camp

Our first encounter with any people at the camp was with a group of locals having a Sunday braai, or South-African style BBQ. We got sucked into this group at one point or another, as the matriarchal politician uninvitingly brought us in, then talked our heads off. As nice as he came across, we found some of his opinions a bit typical of a region.  And his stories of going skiing for breakfast, the beach for lunch, and helicoptering to the desert for dinner while visiting California were bit embellished for his audience. But we took this in stride and tried to take in his words and perspectives as part of our experience and understanding on how people think and interact in this culture.  The others in the group weren’t nearly as outspoken but offered friendly smiles and welcomed us to join if we wished.  Being tired and looking more for solitude than an afternoon of drinking we were able to sneak off and enjoy a good book instead.  We did end up having a good conversation with the politician in the kitchen after the rest of his group departed from the braai when he could speak without the need to entertain or impress.

Even the small creatures were impressive here
Even the small creatures were impressive here

We spent the next couple days in retreat mode, enjoying the space we had from our neighbors, the green manicured lawns, and the access to a full kitchen. In between adventures with the wildlife and time by the pool, Chris and Ben played chef and sous-chef in the industrial kitchen. Having come from Kululu where the water would turn off for several hours and there was no guarantee there would be a knife or a pan to use, this was true luxury. We both had to admit that our quality of meals had greatly increased once ingredients became available and Chris was doing the meal planning.  Delicious burgers one day, BBQ chicken burgers the next, hearty lentil soup for dinner, and big salads. We celebrated the access to the kitchen to our max benefit.

While we had a great time cooking, enjoying time by the pool, and relaxing, the highlights had to be our exposure to some of the great animals of Africa. Eureka Camp used to be significantly bigger, but they had recently sold some of its land. They had raised giraffes, zebras and other (wildebeest) animals on the farm, and although smaller now, there were still several of each wandering in and out of the property. On our first afternoon there, we went for a walk to explore the grounds. After exiting through the back gate, we found a large field with some  outrageous colored grasshoppers.  (photo is un-edited).

Then as we walked the perimeter, we caught a glimpse of a giraffe as it appeared to elegantly stride right over a 6-foot fence. Filled with wonder, we followed it. It apparently had gone through a path open in the fence, walking straight down a road toward the sunset, like an obedient driver who doesn’t pass the speed limit even on his own land. As we followed the silhouette, we saw a family of zebras grazing. We were enchanted, as they let us get just a couple feet away (literally, about two feet). The baby zebra was more brownish in the stripes rather than black, and we could see the black hair was raised from the white section, detail we hadn’t been able to decipher as easily from a distance previously. As Ben, Chris and Izzy went in as close as possible to the zebras and caught it all on camera, Amanda practiced her best “Weekend at Bernies” as she photobombed hilariously. Just before the sun set, we made our way to watch it on the horizon and the giraffe was still nearby, apparently enjoying the view that was likely much better from his altitude.

Eureka Camp Wildlife - Lusaka
Can you spot the giraffe?

While we had the huge site almost all to ourselves during the day, in the evenings Eureka Farm was transformed. Being as the farm was so large, it was one of the best places for accommodating the huge overlander trucks that would come through Lusaka. The farm had designated areas for the trucks to park, set up their dinner camps, and the overlanders to set up their individual tents near the truck. Two of these behemoth trucks came into the camp the night we were there, and the groups flooded the bar area. Enjoying the tranquility we’d had during the day, both of us forwent the packed bar full of drinking overlanders, but Chris, Izzy and James enjoyed some pool and drinks, and perhaps played our favorite game of ‘new identity’.

 

Leaving Lusaka

After a couple days in Lusaka and a couple days at Eureka we prepared ourselves to head back into the bush.  We had used the modern conveniences to our fullest advantage (including many awesome meals which we have to give Chris ample credit for) and we were now packing and preparing ourselves for three days of camping and zero electricity.  Lusaka had given us exactly what we needed: direction in where we would go next, meeting some great people we could spend time with, and cheese.

Leaving Lusaka -- Lusaka

 

The rest of our photos from Lusaka and Eureka Camp can be found HERE.