Africa overlanding: tracing my family history in Zambia

Following the border crossing into Zambia (the fourth African country on our tour so far), the first stop was a small town called Chipata.

Here we were stopping briefly to use an ATM and visit the supermarket – but the stop held greater meaning for me.

Chipata was the town where my great-grandparents lived whilst my great-grandad was the manager of Barclays Bank almost 100 years ago. My grandma was also born here and spent the first few years of her life in sleepy Chipata.

A rare photo of my great grandma

If you’re interested in the full story, check it out here.

The only downside to taking a tour is that you’re often on a tight schedule and can’t control your own itinerary. While I knew we’d pass through Chipata, I had no idea whether we’d spend any time in town or if we’d arrive late at camp and leave early as we often do. Either the universe or the G Adventures schedule was on my side however and the very bank we visited to get our Zambian cash happened to be the one I was looking for. Of course, no visit wouldn’t have been complete without a really sweaty, unflattering photo.

The locals, bank staff and some of my tour group probably thought I was completely mental, taking a huge interest and snapping photos of a perfectly ordinary bank.

Luckily, being deemed completely mental is not something that’s ever phased me and I took my time examining the old building. I tried to picture the surrounding streets as they would have looked 100 years ago and decided, minus the cars, they wouldn’t have looked very different. Chipata is a low-rise, dusty town that isn’t full of amenities or very modern.

We were, without exception, the only white people around, and I think this would have been the same back then. In fact, I know from my great grandad’s diaries that it was!

I even had a look inside the bank but couldn’t find anything of any relation to my family. I didn’t think I would but I did try to picture my great grandad (whose face I know from photos) sat behind the counter.

My great grandad’s photo, taken almost 100 years ago

I wonder if my grandma would have played in the streets, or where exactly their house had been. She passed away just two years ago so I can’t ask… I so wish she was alive today as I know she’d have been so overwhelmed and intrigued to learn about my visit. As someone who virtually never left her hometown in Norfolk after her exotic yet sad start in life (my great grandad died out in Africa), her grandchildrens’ adventures always brought her great joy.

Like many places we’ve passed through recently, the town was poor. Sarah and I felt sad watching a young boy taking bites out of a piece of styrofoam and I handed him my doughnut. His first reaction – despite clearly being hungry – was to rip it into small pieces and share it with his friends.

The only place in the town that definitely hadn’t been around in my great-grandparents’ time was the burger and pizza joint by the gas station. Chris ordered a pizza which turned out to be three stacked together and secured with BBQ sauce which prompted him to muse ‘I can’t believe it’s not American!’

Aside from the pizza joint and the Spar supermarket, the town was still void of any modern or Western influences.

After a night in a local campsite, we continued our journey towards South Luangwa National Park. This next leg was interesting as it was the section of my great grandparents’ voyage from England that they travelled by foot. After a boat from the UK to Cape Town and trains through Durban, Johannesburg, Livingstone and Kabwe, there were no forms of transport to Chipata. By contrast, the journey that will only take us two bus rides, took them 26 days.

The countryside was gloriously green but very hot. It was easy to imagine the small local homes and settlements we passed having looked exactly the same a century ago. Pedestrians we passed looked at us with curiosity and kids ran to the roadside, waving and smiling. It’s probably impossible that even the youngest of children my great grandparents passed back then would still be alive today, but you never know!

We had just a five-hour journey to South Luangwa where safari opportunities were on the horizon.

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See you next time for more adventures,

Rose x

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