Highway to Chipepo

Zambia was zooming past at great speed as we crossed it’s great arterial highway. Golden brown scrubland, dry skeletal trees, yellow-tinged earth, low rolling hills. Small villages clustered by the highway, clusters of tiny thatch huts with people and livestock standing around, sweeping leaves or carrying bales of wood. Tomato sellers and potters had stalls set up to sell to passers-by, their wares lined up in their hundreds alongside the tarmac.

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We stopped at one pottery stall. Wessel was interested in African musical instruments for his art gallery, and wanted accompanying photos of the makers of the instruments. He bought a small goat-skinned drum, and snapped a portrait of the maker. I bought a vase, misshapen and lumpy, but certainly an authentic Zambian souvenir.

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I asked the potter who taught him to work with clay. My forefathers, he replied. I reflected on the African people we had seen so far, and I realised that we had barely seen any people over about 40. I had read that the HIV infected population rate in Botswana was something like 25%. It was a harrowing thought, and I wondered what kind of difference this $1 pot sale would make for the potter.

A fork appeared in the road. To the right, our destination; a town called Chipepo. We asked a passing cyclist at the intersection for directions to the town. He told us 2 hours. 100km in 2 hours? We asked what we could find down that road. Nothing, he replied. We should have listened.

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Immediately, we saw why this journey would take a long time. The road was sprayed with potholes. Sudden, deep potholes with sharp asphalt edges, spattered randomly over the tarmac. We had to swerve violently to avoid each one, and never gained any sort of speed. After half an hour of this, the road devolved into dirt and loose stones. At least we had the right car for the job.

The sun began to set, firing yellow rays through the blackening tree branches, and we all grew nervous. The road seemed to go deeper and deeper into the bushland. And the cyclist’s advice didn’t fill us with confidence about Chipepo. People from local tribes walked up and down the road, hauling baskets and bales of sticks on their heads. African people were always well dressed; the women wore bright floral dresses, while the men wore suits (albeit old and dusty). The road escalated up through the forest, over hills and into leafy gullies. We vaulted over hidden speedbumps which launched the rear end of the car airborne, slid over loose gravel and rocks, until eventually, the lake shone into view. Spurred on by the sight of our destination, Jeff drove faster.

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We arrived at Chipepo as the blanket of night finally fell. Chipepo wasn’t really a town. It was just one building. There was no electricity, no phone, no shops, no bar. The quiet and the dark was greatly exaggerated here. It looked as though it had been built as a resort in the 60’s, received no visitors, and became derelict. It was single story, L-shaped, and had about 20 rooms, none of which had been occupied in a long while. We felt completely alien as we parked, and a group of locals stared at us. No tourists ever came here. Why would they?

We asked the manager for a room. She showed us through, which was little more than three single beds and mosquito nets. It was perfect. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the beds; this looked like bedbug heaven. With the only light coming from our torches, we cast long, creepy shadows across the room. Finished with our bed set-up, we went outside to open some beers and cook the hamburgers we had for dinner.

The locals had a surprise for us. They had set up some candles and a table for three in the abandoned bar area. It was a touching gesture and we sat down, eating chips and drinking beers. We could sense that everyone was staring at us, making sure we were having a good time. The lake was lapping softly next to us. I wondered if it was possible for hippos to come wandering into the bar.

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The hotel staff were cooking nshima, a mushy maize meal. We started our campfire next to theirs and started cooking burgers. We sliced the bread and fried the onions. The Zambians were curious, and came up to us to ask about our menu. We told them we were making American food, and Wessel asked if we could trade a plate of Nshima and fish for a hamburger. They gave us nshima with tiny dried fish native to Lake Kariba. We loved the fish, with their salty sardine taste; the staff didn’t look as impressed with the hamburgers.

Chipepo was like no other place we had visited in Africa. We felt as though we truly got to see a part of Africa rarely visited. We woke up at sunrise, as we did every day. We said a quick farewell to the people of Chipepo, and prepared ourselves for the journey out as we started driving up the offroad path again for 2 hours of back-shattering driving. But that was nothing compared to the potholes in the rest of Zambia…


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