48 Hours in South Luangwa (part 2)
There is no better place in the valley to arrive at hungry than Flatdogs (these are crocodiles FYI) Camp. I arrive after 3, but the à la carte restaurant is still open (to outside visitors too), and it is seriously good. As I eat, I watch a monitor lizard mooching around a nearby tree, looking for nests, or anything edible. He's as hungry as I am, it seems, but has less joy. I am also struck that he is not being chased away, nor is he remotely tame and looking for food anywhere near the tables. He is just there, in his environment. This is exactly how the camp feels.
My tent sits under a thatch covering beneath a sausage tree and, as I walk there with director Harold, the camp's particular identity is apparent. There is no mowing, and little vegetation has been cleared. "It is the animals' environment, and we want to disturb them as little as possible," Ade, the big boss, tells me early the next morning as we watch a herd of elephants snacking on bushes around my tent. There are consequently frequent elephant delays in camp, which is fine by everyone (I mean, it's amazing. I was delayed on departure myself, and didn't get to see Jackalberry Treehouse due to the elephants mooching around outside), though occasionally they mean a mad dash to the airport for departing guests.
And it is staggeringly good value if you are driving yourself, on your own. Which you probably won't be, but still: my tent was $45 a night (now $56, or $90 for double occupancy), which is not bad. I paid £600 a night for a comparable tent - there was a plunge pool on the deck, but equally, Flatdogs has an actual swimming pool - as a self-driver in Kenya this August, albeit with very average meals included). Safari packages are more expensive, but cover everything (drives, walks, excellent food, transfers, excellent guiding), and are much lower than what you might pay for other lodges nearby. And really, you can only call it a tent if you've never been camping. It has a lush bathroom, a sofa, a superking bed, polished concrete floors and a deck at the front with comfortable wicker sofas. And a view of a bend in the languid Luangwa river. Elephants browsed around my tent in the morning, and crossed the river in groups in front of me, trumpeting excitedly as they met another group on the other side. An incredible spectacle if you live in England but a daily occurence if you are here (still an incredible spectacle, Ade assures me).
But for now I finish my lunch quickly and head out over on a game drive. We meet the usual heavy traffic (4 vehicles...) as we cross, and head out on a loop into the park. Our mission later will be to find a leopardess, but although we smell her (well, a pungent) scent in the dark, and scour bushes with powerful flashlights, we ultimately fail in this endeavour. But not before finding hyenas, servals, giraffes, zebras, puku, buffalo, mongoose groups, birdlife galore, and watching elephants cross the river at sunset while sipping a beer. It is a peaceful, timeless scene, which provokes a deep feeling of contentment in me. And we really don't see many other vehicles, except for the two other Flatdogs landrovers engaged in the same leopard search. The park is vast, and visitor numbers are lower than they should be, or will be soon.
In the morning, having eaten well twice more (a la carte dinner, freshly-prepared breakfast), spoken to Ade about the camp, its history, aims and ethos, and with my landcruiser successfully repaired in the camp workshop, it is time to start the long drive back to Blantyre. Before I leave, I am taken to look at the Croc's Nest, a luxury two-bedroom marquee of a tent, which sleeps up to six, away from the main camp. It has its own staff, pool and deck, a gorgeous view and serious comfort. On the way to Jackalberry Treehouse, we are delayed by elephants and can't get to it, but it is rustic luxury for 4 people, on an 8ft-high deck, open to the stars. As well as these and the safari tents, there are also Chalets in the main camp, close to the swimming pool, which are ideal for families.
Flatdogs radiates confidence, purpose and happiness. It is a stunning location, opposite the truly wild South Luangwa National Park and within the wider ecosystem (to the east of the river is a game management area, essentially a continuation of the park), but also fundamentally plugged into the local Luangwa Valley community, which is growing rapidly. The camp has grown organically over the years under the stewardship of Ade, Jess and Harold, among others, and I can only urge you to visit. Given that whole-community uplift is the purpose of this site, I leave more than satisfied that Flatdogs is doing a lot in the valley. It has trained and developed local talent to management and strategic positions, some of whom have moved on to start their own businesses, and contributes substantial funds, from your visit (so go!), to the work of Project Luangwa, among others.
Another driver of this site is the knowledge that the marketing we receive in the UK and other countries, of pristine, unspoilt African wilderness, is fundamentally dishonest. Africa is wild, in so many areas, but it is also developing, with populations growing rapidly in, or alongside, these same areas. To my mind, there is no mileage in decrying this development. On the contrary, the manner in which it is occurring, in so many places, South Luangwa among them, is inspiring to those of us who believe that an eventual equlibrium with nature is achievable.
So, as I drive back out through Mfuwe, I stop at the Project Luangwa shop, next to the petrol station (which had no petrol, but I made it to Chipata, just - always keep your tank as full as possible!), which sells textile and other products to benefit the community. I buy a bag for my daughter, and lovely pieces of jewellery. It is all beautifully made. I move on to the Tribal Textiles factory on the edge of town. Both shops were set up to diversify the local economy, and provide a glimpse of the human backdrop to the wild area just down the road. I am guided through the intensive, skilled, artesanal process involved in producing the cloth, which I have seen in many homes, lodges and businesses in Zambia and Malawi. It involves painting a corn flour and water mix onto cloth, then painting it and baking to fix the pattern and dye on the cloth, which then becomes washable and ironable without fading. As with porcelain painting, the colour as it is mixed is not the same as the eventual colour of the cloth, so plenty of experience is required. The designs are beautiful and varied (shop online here) and I could have bought armfulls of the stuff, but I settled on a few cushion covers and a table runner. Tribal Textiles do day painting activities, which children and adults love. Flatdogs, or any other lodge in the valley, will organise a visit here, or even to local villages and cultural events. There is so much more than wildlife in this valley which, to me, makes it so much more exciting as a holiday destination.
Finally, I have to go. I have already calculated that the last two hours of my journey in Malawi will be in the dark, and I really don't want to make it any more. Because it really is dark at night on the road, and pedestrians and cyclists returning from work really don't do lights! But the journey back is very smooth - I give an old man a lift to Chipata, pass through the border very quickly, then pick up Linly and Miracle in Lilongwe (see Part 1), and we get back to Blantyre with only one more speeding ticket, from the same crew as on Friday. All I need to do now is plan the next day's lessons...