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  • Writer's pictureTyrone McKeith

The day we went for a long, long walk (2011)…

As the tourist season at Busanga was drawing to a close I was really looking forward to some well earned rest, and certainly putting my feet up with a cold beer and nothing to do! That was until I received an email from my good mate Phil Jeffery asking if I fancied accompanying ZAWA on a patrol through the bush, in an area they do not usually traverse, ‘it will only take a day’ he said, what he didn’t say was that we would cover almost 45km in the hottest, driest part of the year, on foot, carrying all the water and equipment we would need on our backs…

Walking 45km in less than 24hours is no mean feat. I was not really prepared for how hard this would be. I knew I was not in peak physical condition but I was hardly doing the Marathon des sables was I?

The day arrived. I had my walking boots on with a backpack in which contained a small first aid kit, with a couple of old plasters and a few bottles of water. Phil was a bot more organized and had some energy bars and pot noodles…

The plan was to drive to Lufupa camp and from there we would get a boat and be dropped off on the banks of the river, get our bearings, and then head off from there. From where we reached by sunset we would head off for the main bulk of the walk the next morning. This obviously entailed spending a night somewhere in the bush, however my brain seemed not to really register this as I took absolutely nothing to keep me warm nor cover me, nor sleep on, or in.

Barry the boatman from Lufupa camp dropped us and the guys off, all in high spirits!

Zambia being Zambia as soon as we reached our start point, took our GPS bearings and laced up our boots, it was time for… Nshima. 

Once the guys had had their fill we had exactly an hour to cover as much ground as possible before sunset. My boots here felt perfect for the job but were to cause a tremendous amount of pain in less than 24 hours…

Off we set! We were travelling nice and quickly, making use of the cooler temperatures and our fresh legs. We followed the course of the river for a few kilometers, and considering this area has never seen a tourist in its existence the wildlife was rather good, with plenty of plains’ game and a couple of very well behaved elephants, in close proximity to us.  Tracks and signs of predators were also readily abundant; Phil here finds some Leopard spoor.

It was interesting to note how the terrain changed as we moved, especially now as we were heading in-land away from our last source of water for the next 35kms, using the last vestiges of light to guide us.

We reached our first pre-set GPS location, our spot for the night, collected some fire wood and made our heater/oven/animal protection. It was a nice evening, chatting to the five ZAWA officers about their stories and encounters with wildlife and poachers. What I realized is that we are all too often ready to jump at the chance to ridicule the efforts of ZAWA but these guys are machines, tough, tough, guys who are very proud to do what they do, and literally put their necks on the line to protect the very same animals the tourists from the west often take for granted when they are on safari. Without any ZAWA presence Zambian parks would be empty, with some support ZAWA can make Zambian Parks full once again…

So with a Hyena keeping us company all night and three different Lions calling from different directions, we slept well…

I woke up with a touch of frostbite, cursing my blasé attitude to night attire in the bush. It was still dark when we woke but we had planned this as we wanted to cover as much distance as possible in the cooler hours. We set off at 05:00 to our next GPS location 10kms away.

We reached this location in good time, although now the sun was up, and although still not 08h00 the late November sun was burning its way through to my spine. We still had a very long way to go but my legs and lungs were feeling strong. It was good to be out in the bush. Water was beginning to be a limiting factor, for although I simply could not have carried any more, it was becoming very evident that I would have to ration every drop from now on. Only 25km’s to go…

We reached our next GPS point, passing good signs of game, considering how far from the river we were and how there was no sign of moisture around at all. Spoor of Sable, Hartebeest and Buffalo abounded and we even had a good sighting of two big male Roan antelope, Hyena droppings were everywhere. Now however, my feet were starting to burn. I have always been susceptible to blisters but hoped they would not be too bad and wouldn’t bother me too much. We carried on walking; I didn’t want to check my feet. Every km that passed was an achievement as the temperatures reached 40degrees, I felt solace in the fact that it was not just Phil and I who were hot and bothered but the ZAWA officers too were feeling the pinch. 25kms so far and at a good pace in the sweltering heat was not easy for any of us.

As time moved slower than I thought it was possible the weight of the .458 seemed to increase ten fold for every footstep I took.

And little did I know that with every footstep my feet were imploding. With every sharp burning pain that went through my feet I knew a new blister had been both formed and broken and when finally looking closer at my feet I saw that if I wanted to get out of there today then I had better do some DIY foot repair. Out came the old plasters and I patched my feet up as best as possible. Luckily for me, Phil had a spare pair of running shoes with him, I borrowed them, this made a real difference. We were now maybe 15kms from the tar road and the mecca that the M9 road to Mongu (which it would not usually be described as) became.

The pace now as we entered the 7th hour of our day was massively hindered by my inability to walk very fast. It was here when the last few drops of water had gone and the last cereal bar had been consumed. This walk had now gone from a fun stroll through the bush to a bit of a survival exercise.

There are no more pictures from this point on as we were using every last vestige of energy on putting one foot ahead of the next. This was a mental challenge now. It was not the physical fatigue, for my legs and lungs were strong but the pain my feet were in was now unbearable. We made it to 3km before the tar road, there was a large plain with massive pot holes made by earth worms and wind erosion, it was like walking on large ball-bearings, the last thing I needed to put my feet through. It was this last slog across the plain which finished me. I slumped down and simply could not walk an inch further. We could hear the tar road and the traffic on it but for me it was unobtainable by foot.

We had come a very long way in a very short space of time, with absolutely no training, with not enough water and little to eat. We had done very very well. Two of the ZAWA guys headed to the road, leaving Phil, I and the rest of the ZAWA team to contemplate what we had let ourselves in for. As I looked around I felt consolation in the fact that I was not the only one who was finished, one of the guys told me they only usually walk 10km a day when on patrol and that this was the longest distance they had ever covered in a day.

The sight of the vehicle making its way to where I had collapsed was nothing short of epic. We were seriously dehydrated too and although the vehicle arrived with only one bottle of water to share between the seveb of us, the mouth full was like liquid gold. I have never been so happy to have a drink in my life.

I got back to camp and took my shoes off to see the damage, this is what I found.

To say I slept well that evening would be an understatement…


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