My First Taste of Africa: Landing in Zambia

Cattle in Zambia Africa

Africa.

I've always had a fascination with this content. For as long as I can remember, I would sit eagerly in front of the TV screen, flicking between the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and National Geographic for anything Africa-related.

The continent just seemed to scream my name. The wildlife, the vast untouched wilderness, the unique cultures, the rawness. Everything about it captivated me.

I had made it to 17 years of age without ever setting foot on the continent. Too long, I thought.

When the opportunity arose for me to visit a country in southern Africa called Zambia with school, I could have cried with delight. There was a catch though - as with anything in life. The trip was exclusively for Biology AS level students only.

I first learnt about the trip at a parents' evening. It was not long before I had to make my decision on which 4 subjects to take for AS level. I was going for English Literature, English Language, Psychology and had one last slot to fill. My heart was leaning towards Philosophy. That was until my Biology teacher informed me of the expedition down the Zambezi River the following year. My eyes lit up at once. It sounded perfect - an expedition into the wilds of Africa involving wild camping and safaris. I wanted to go more than anything.

Except I was shit at Biology. I was shit at Science in general.

I've always been more creative and my Philosophy teacher said I was very talented. Philosophy seemed the obvious choice. I could really excel in it and achieve 4 solid A levels.

But the trip to Zambia! If I selected Philosophy then there was no way I'd be able to embark on this trip, the only opportunity I had ever had to visit Africa. When would I get another opportunity like this?

It was a choice between good grades or a 10-day stint in Africa.

Fuck it, I thought. I want to go to Zambia and that's exactly what I'll do.

So I chose Biology. I ended up getting an E but I didn't really care because I was going to Zambia!

Driving through Zambia Africa
Driving through Zambia Africa

The day finally arrived.

After a long plane journey, changing flights at Amsterdam and Kenya, I touched down in Zambia.

I disembarked from the plane and breathed in the African air for the first time. Fresh, warm and with a hint of sand, I could feel the essence of the country already. Finally - I was in Africa!

I was in Zambia on a school trip with several other pupils from my year and also the year below me. Three teachers accompanied us. The trip had been organised through an adventure travel company called Exodus (in fact, you can find the trip here - note the itinerary has changed slightly since I embarked on it).

Despite being under the Exodus branding, the tour was in fact organised by River Horse Safaris and can be booked directly through their website as well as through Exodus.

The expedition consisted of 10 days wild camping along the Zambezi river, located in the very south of Zambia. The Zambezi river is the fourth-longest river in Africa and runs along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is mostly notable for the beautiful Victoria Falls, located on the border between 4 countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.

Our first campsite was a 2 and a half hour bus ride from the bustling capital of Lusaka.

I soaked up the new sights and smells, leaning out of my open minibus window. The busy streets were coated in a thin carpet of sand. Tall buildings gleamed in the background whilst women in colourful attire sold fresh produce at the side of the road.

Our engine juddered as we came to a halt at some traffic lights. I noticed several people in the central island in the road. I watched as they approached cars in traffic, trying to sell things.

Before I had time to think, a young boy - perhaps only 9 or 10 years old - appeared beside my open window.

"Please Ma'am," He began to beg, placing his open palm close to my face. I stared into his round, sad eyes. "Please."

That's when the culture shock hit me.

I stared at the boy for a moment, unable to speak. I couldn't tare my gaze away, although, he wouldn't have been able to tell as I hid behind my large-framed sunglasses. My mouth was dry and I tried to find the words but they wouldn't come.

I felt sadness. Yet I had nothing for him.

I'm also certain that giving into begging like this isn't the right thing to do. It only encourages more begging and I'd heard that sometimes young children collected money only to hand them in to their 'bosses'. People are more likely to give money to children.

The lights turned green and the minibus let out a loud groan before taking off again.

I wound my window up after that.

It was just as well as the same story seemed to unfold at every set of lights we stopped by. Young children would approach cars. I learnt to turn my head away.

Once we left the city behind us, I began to relax again.

Small Town in Zambia Africa

After I had recovered from my culture shock, I allowed myself to embrace the new sights and sounds.

I sat gazing out of the window, fascinating by everything. I was engrossed by this completely new culture.

I saw cattle roaming by the side of the road, small markets and houses that look so different to anything I'd seen before. The houses got ever smaller the further we drove, exiting the city and entering rural Zambia.

About half-way through the drive we had a brief stop at a supermarket. I knew exactly what I wanted. It may have been my first time in Africa but it was not my first time trying African food.

I purposefully strolled towards the butcher end of the supermarket, my mouth beginning to salivate as I took in the huge sign that read 'biltong'.

Biltong is a dried meat snack which has its origins in South Africa. My dad lived in South Africa for a few years, long before I was born. He fell in love with biltong and, as a result, I was introduced to it from an early age. I'd even go as far as to say it's my favourite food in the world.

I couldn't believe the amount of biltong in front of me. There was so much! I was completely spoilt for choice. In the end I purchased some traditional beef biltong strips and some droëwors (biltong sausage).

I had expected to get funny looks when I arrived back on the bus.

"What on earth is that?" People screwed their faces up. "It looks weird."

I didn't care. I loved my South African snack. And those who were brave enough to try it actually ended up loving it too.

I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as we continued driving down the dusty Zambian roads. The biltong was some of the best I've ever had - in fact it was the best I'd ever had. That's not all that surprising really as I've never had fresh biltong before, straight from southern Africa.

Fruit Market in Zambia Africa
Village Houses in Zambia Africa

We arrived at the campsite towards the end of the day.

Our home for the night was a campsite perched upon the Zambezi river called Zambezi Breezers. The campsite was just north of a Zambian town called Chirundu and, being based on the Zambezi, was only a stone throw away from Zimbabwe. In fact, all land that I could see on the right of the river was Zimbabwe.

Our group spilled out on the short vibrant grass which hugged the river. Collapsed tents dotted the field.

Our first lesson of the trip was how to set up our own tents. Fun. But before we got stuck into this activity, we needed to choose a tent-mate.

My tent-mate was a long-time friend called Emily. We had been best friends for the first 2 years of my secondary school life but I sadly caused a rift between our friendship. You see, I'm very good at burning bridges. Fortunately, Emily was a better person than I was and was keen to make amends and be my tent-buddy for this trip.

I was utterly useless at setting up the tent.

When we gazed around us at everyone's immaculate and intact tents, I'm certain Emily was regretting agreeing to buddy-up with me. Ours lay in a crumpled heap with black poles sticking out from awkward angles.

We got there in the end.

Completely exhausted, I was more than delighted to indulge in my dinner. Dinner was served from a BBQ in the centre of the campsite. Flames lapped at the cooking food and lit up the otherwise black surroundings. Night had arrived and the insects of the night had begun their symphony.

Before bed, we were given a safety briefing for out first night of camping.

"Be careful." One of the guides warned. "Hippos do sometimes like to wander into the campsite in the night."

I swallowed.

The ablution block was a good few hundred yards away beside the main lodge area and I'm notorious for having a terribly weak bladder. In fact, I hadn't gone a night without needing to pee in it at least once for perhaps 5 years. Now I was learning that I may encounter hippos on the way to the bathroom.

Hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They are the most deadly land animal and kill around 500 people per year in Africa. They are frequently described as aggressive and territorial, especially at night.

I decided I'd be lucky to survive the night.

I had my shower - the last I would have for several days - before I got ready for bed. I unzipped the green tent before stepping inside. It was a cosy little tent, just big enough for the two of us. We set up our sleeping bags and hung our mosquito nets over our new little beds.

I lay listening to the sounds of the night, cringing slightly when the heavy bellowing of hippos reached my ears. They're calls are unmistakable, like a laughing old man.

Please don't need to pee. Please don't need to pee. I silently begged myself.

Lulled by the insects, I finally drifted off to sleep.

Tent Wild Camping in Zambia Africa

My trusty tent

Campsite Dog in Zambia Africa

Mr Mushy - the campsite dog

I awoke a few hours later, the urge to pee unmistakable.

Oh, fuck you bladder!

I listened carefully for any signs of life in the campsite. The insects hummed and a bird called but otherwise it was blissfully quiet. Surely hippos would make a racket, right?

I didn't really want to find out but it looked like I was going to have to. There was no way I was going to be able to get back to sleep with my bladder feeling as much pressure as it was.

But there was no way I was making this trip alone.

I gently woke Emily.

"I need to pee." I hissed.

Poor Emily. She had kindly offered to accompany me on my bathroom excursions when I told her about my pea-sized bladder the night before.

I fumbled around in the darkness for my head-torch. Rustling beside me told me that Emily was doing the same.

Once my torch was securely on my head, I risked unzipping the tent.

I poked my head out, making out the outlines of other tents nestled amongst the trees.

I breathed out a sigh of relief to see there were no hippos.

Satisfied the coast was clear, Emily and I made a dash towards the toilets.

It was a relief to have emptied my bladder and be on my way back to the tent. Our journey had been uneventful - peaceful in fact.

Shadows danced around us as our head-torches swung with each stride. A frog was chirping from a nearby bush and I looked up to see the beautiful night sky. The milky-way was out in full force, not dampened by any light pollution.

We really were in the wild here, far away from civilisation as we knew it.

I allowed myself to smile as we safely returned to our tent. I couldn't believe I was really here. I was really in Africa.

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