The holiday of a lifetime to Zambia planned down to the last detail – nothing had been left to chance at the three ‘camps’ we were visiting – Chiawa in the south Zambesi National park, the Safari house at the Nkwali camp on the Luangwa River, further up to the north east and finally, Kapamba camp on the Kapamba river.
We had even checked with the agent that running would be possible and he had confidently replied that it would not be a problem and that the guides did this all the time and all we needed to do was arrange this with the camps when we arrived.
The face of the manager when we somewhat niavely asked at the first camp about a running excursion was incredulous, to say the least!
Running in the national park is not allowed, he explained; indeed, getting out of a vehicle, without a guide is a no-no and even a walking tour requires engaging the services of a park ranger of the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) with a rifle for those unexpected round the corner eventualities.
So although we had a fantastic time at Chiawa, running was most definitely NOT on the agenda.
The second site was set up rather differently, being across the South Luangwa river and not in the national park itself, and Kiki, our guide, duly explained again that we would not be able to run in the park, but he was quite happy to take us from our camp where we could run out to the ‘main’ road, a distance of 6-7km, and from there we could run through the villages towards the airport at Mfuwe.
Feeling our feet twitching from low ceratonin levels, we jumped at the chance and made the arrangements for another running adventure ‘with a difference!’
At 5:45am the next morning, we were off, with instructions to keep looking out to the sides for anything untoward, especially elephants, lions or leopards!
Liz and I started running, with a certain amount of trepidation as this was the first time we had been ‘out of the vehicle’ on our own, but the first few moments were uneventful. We saw a few baboons and impala, relatively common for the area, which we saw mostly disappearing off into the distance as they were far more concerned with the unfamiliarity of our heavy stomping gait than in allowing us the delight of running in their company.
Eventually though we turned a corner and were faced with a group of elephants browsing through the undergrowth and spilling over the road a few metres ahead of us. Kiki in the landcruiser behind us, immediately closed on our position, and realising discretion was the better part of valour when it comes to dealing with the unpredictable nature of several tons of African elephant, we hopped back onto the vehicle and drove slowly past the retreating herd.
Actually, that was to be our one and only skirmish of significance with the african wildlife, but the cultural adventure was just beginning.
As we continued our way to the main road Liz confirmed neither of her ITBs were holding up well so she would be stopping soon. As it was, she managed another couple of kilometers before we reached the turning off to Mfuwe.
The turning was a few hundred metres before the start of a route which passed through a number of villages consisting of schools, shops, mechanic’s workshops for both cars and bicycles and of course a variety of churches and bars. The buildings in these settlements consisted of two main varieties: brick with shiny galvanised corrugated steel roofs or mud and straw combinations of the type you would have thought would struggle to stand up to the oncoming rainy season onslaught.
The buildings were not the first thing I noticed though.
Unsurprisingly, the local habitants were not really used to seeing ‘whities’ outside of a jeep on their way to a safari camp or even in their villages, but at the site of me running down the road at 6:30am I was greeted with a mixture of shouts of ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ which I subsequently found out in Zambian are exactly the same word, hence the translated interchangability. On responding myself with salutations of ‘morning’ and ‘how are you?’, the beaming smiles and excitement were such that I felt I was running my own special race. I love running!
At one point I caught up with a couple of boys riding a bicycle slowly along the rough and uneven gravel sides of the road along which I was running. I presumed they were doubly surprised by the fact not only that I was running, but also that I was passing them. I asked them how they were and they responded they were fine and retorted in kind. The conversation continued with the one lad asking me ‘Why was I running?’ I explained it was merely for fun and fitness and he echoed my comments by recognising it was to keep myself in shape physically, to which I laughed and responded that I ate too much – although I immediately felt guilty about the imposition of situational comedy on these two individuals whom it is quite possible could never even contemplate the concept of eating ‘too much!’ I moved on steadily considering again how strange my actions might appear, on so many levels, to these locals.
I was starting to think about how far I would realistically be able to do at this modest 5 min/km pace with the heat beginning to increase considerably in the exposed conditions, when another young lady passed me on her bicycle, but this time with a look of real concern, bordering on abject horror, on her face as she asked me a now familiar ‘How ARE YOU???’ This time though, I translated the greeting into something more akin to ‘Are you about to expire?’ or ‘Would you like me to call a medical service for you?’ such was her body language as she rode by.
Many times along the road and through the villages, I was spotted from a distance by young children playing in their ‘front yard’ and often their reaction was to shout excitedly for their friends and siblings and run and wave enthusiastically along side me for a few metres. When I waved back and shouted hello’s to them, the level of laughs and shouts characteristically went up a notch or two.
After about 17-18km I saw a group of three elderly women on their way somewhere ahead of me and as I passed them they all gave me the usual polite ‘Hello – How are you?’ greeting as I passed and acknowledged them, but one of the lady’s also smiled and clapped briefly as I went past, saying something in her local dialect probably akin to ‘bravo’.
I ran on in the heat and considered how few cars there were out here, the primary mode of transportation seeming to be the bicycle, many of which were unfeasibly loaded with a vast array of goods being distributed to the myriad small huts along the sides of the road and elsewhere for sale. Most had more than one occupant.
After looking at my watch for a couple of km and counting down, I decided it was time to stop; just under two hours running and all flat, but what a fantasic experience!
As I turned round and jogged slowly back to the landcruiser I saw not only Liz and Kiki, our guide, but also three others. As the ensemble approached me I suddenly smiled as I recognised the ladies that had greeted me a few km earlier. They were more than happy to cadge a lift and ride in comfort at the 12km/h I was maintaining obliviously ahead. Unfortunately, now I had decided to finish and their opportunistic ride was therefore about to disappear and at this the one lady that had clapped me was MOST upset! “How?” she exclaimed to Liz in her pigeon English, effectively meaning ‘why is he stopping now? I’m quite happy to sit here and enjoy the ride and just because he wants to stopsurely it doesn’t really mean that I have to get out.’ Eventually, they all alighted from our temporary mobile training base, with some most disgruntled looks and carried on with their slow stroll towards their eventual destination at some point ahead.
Although I had only done 13 miles or so (the full route here), it was the first time I had run in several days and the feeling was therefore that of relief mixed with exuberance as the cerotonin levels increased and the malotonin levels were banished to acceptable levels.
The experience of the culture as I was running was just amazing, and yet again proves what a versatile activity running can be; from Mont Blanc to Zambia, Berlin to San Francisco, running is just a fantastic way to experience life in so many different ways.