The hot springs and deliciously torrid tales at the end of Zambia’s road from hell

The hot springs and deliciously torrid tales at the end of Zambia’s road from hell
Steam rises off the hot springs at the Kapishya lodge on the Mansha River in Zambia. (Photo: Hugh Fraser)

In her fourth instalment of the Epic Road Trip, Bridget Hilton-Barber, having survived the perils of Zambia’s most notorious road with fellow traveller Hugh Fraser, desperately needs a soft landing. And she gets it.

We’d driven for eight hours on the hell road they call the Zambian T2, a potholed, cratered chaos of a road that sees more than 800 trucks a day.

There were oil and petrol tankers, kamikaze passenger buses, long trucks, abnormal-load trucks, trucks carrying other trucks. There were people on motorbikes and bicycles, in overloaded bakkies, clapped-out minibuses.

For Zambians this is completely normal, but for those of us who are used to actual highways, it was completely terrifying.

We eventually turned off the T2 with great relief and did the last 30km stretch on a dirt road in the gathering gloom. We arrived at Kapishya Hot Springs Lodge in the dark, found our way in through the garden and stood wide-eyed and trembling at the bar.

We could hear the sound of bleating. Clearly, we were not the sacrificial lambs of the Zambian T2 road.

Zambia Shiwa Ngandu

Shiwa Ngandu, the manor house that British soldier and aristocrat Stewart Gore-Browne built in 1928. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

“Oh, those are just some orphaned lambs with us for the night,” said owner-manager Mark Harvey cheerily, appearing at the bar. Obviously, he is used to guests arriving in severe states of T2 trauma. And, obviously, he is also used to orphaned lambs spending the night in the laundry room.

Within a short while he’d given us a stiff drink, regaled us with some robust tales of driving the T2 himself – “Ah, come on, it’s only 12 hours to Lusaka” – and sent us off in white bathrobes to languish in the resident hot spring.

Kapishya Hot Springs Lodge was to be our gentlest landing of the entire road trip. Imagine driving for eight hours on a wild road from hell and then finding yourself immersed in a hot spring lit by lamps, with the backing track provided by a lazy river, in deepest, most delicious Africa.

Oh, to wake to the sounds of a river and birds. I’d had no idea what to expect since we had arrived in the dark, and opened the curtains to a paradise of greenery and the sight of steam rising off the Mansha River, which flows right in front of the lodge.

The gardens here are glorious, planted with tall trees and bamboo, strelitzia, Chinese lanterns, Singapore orchids, ferns and heliconia.  

Kapishya has six chalets, a riverside campsite and a greenhouse where herbs and veggies are grown. There’s a gorgeous pool deck overlooking the river, and the main meeting, eating and hanging-out spot is River View Lounge, which has African statues, carvings and fabrics, and an upstairs lounge and small library.

Mark’s partner Mel is a really great cook. Everything is fresh, seasonal and wholesome; the breads are homemade, the herbs freshly plucked, the juices freshly squeezed, the chickens free range. There are dogs and cats, and everything just feels so comforting and farmlike.  

Kapishya lodge’s garden chalet is nestled among spectacular greenery. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Kapishya is such a soul spot that we simply disappeared into dreamland for a few days. We hit a deep chill and remembered that it’s a measure of a good road trip when you don’t get into the car for a while. Doris, the lovely masseur from the spa, gave me a thorough de-T2-ing and made me purr.

Mark is a raconteur of note and a safari guide (his company, Shiwa Safaris, also has the legendary Buffalo Camp, an authentic seasonal camp in the heart of Luangwa Valley), and he told us the torrid tale of his family and this most famous piece of Africa.

Englishman’s dream

Mark’s grandfather was Stewart Gore-Browne, an English soldier and aristocrat who came to Zambia in 1911, when it was Northern Rhodesia. He built an extraordinary manor house nearby the lodge in 1928 called Shiwa Ngandu. His life story is told in the bestselling book The Africa House by Christina Lamb (Penguin, 1999), which is “an account of one Englishman’s dream to live in Africa”.

Gore-Browne was no ordinary colonist, writes Brenden Sainsbury in New African magazine. “On the one hand, he was an inveterate British aristocrat with a stern militaristic manner and a penchant for precise manners; on the other, a pioneering champion of African self-determination who, on his death in 1967, was the first white person to receive a state funeral in Zambia.

“Like other colonists of the era, he hunted and shot rhinos for sport, hosted lavish garden parties, and strode around his domain wearing a lounge suit and a monocle,” writes Sainsbury.

The history of Shiwa Ngandu is Shakespearean in its bravery, slavery, love, tragedy, family feuds and colonial politics.

But, “placed in historical context, Gore-Browne’s views were unprecedented. A man ahead of his time, he not only inspired devotion among many of his African colleagues, but also commanded respect in the corridors of power in London… he was a bridge between two opposing worlds, mixing tolerance and humanism with stiff Victorian manners and a regimented work ethic.”

Gore-Brown became a close friend of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president, who said he arrived “as an English gentleman and died as a Zambian gentleman”.

We visited Shiwa Ngandu manor, which is run as a private hunting lodge and forms part of a 22,000ha reserve with a beautiful lake, more than 200 bird species and antelope like lechwe and sitatungas.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Don’t cut corners: succumbing to a land of plenty is the way to go

It is the last thing you’d expect in this remote corner of Zambia, among the granite boulders at the tail end of the Great Rift Valley: a massive red-brick mansion, part Renaissance villa, part meticulously manicured English estate. In the words of one visitor, it was like “coming across a mud hut or a herd of buffalo in Piccadilly Circus”.

Mark’s brother Charlie, Gore-Browne’s eldest grandson, and Charlie’s wife Jo and their two children took it over in 1999 and began the proverbial loving restoration.

Bridget Hilton-Barber relaxes in the hot spring after the treacherous drive on the Zambian T2 road. (Photo: Hugh Fraser)

Kapishya lodge’s tranquil massage spot guarantees a relaxing treatment. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Jo gave us a tour of the manor house, its walls lined with animal heads and horns, its rooms filled with colonial memorabilia. We saw the impressive old library with its wooden floor; we sat quietly in the old chapel with its stained glass windows.  

The history of Shiwa Ngandu is Shakespearean in its bravery, slavery, love, tragedy, family feuds and colonial politics. It felt essentially melancholic, however, and I longed to be back in the hot springs.

After Gore-Brown died, his daughter Lorna and her husband John Harvey – Mark and Charlie’s parents – took over and ran the ailing estate from 1955 until their tragic murder in 1992.

After being fed and pampered and soothed by the ancient springs of Kapishya, our carefully worked-out road trip spreadsheet became elastic. Mark explained that we didn’t have to return to the dreaded T2 road to get to Tanzania, where we were headed.

He sold us 10 litres of petrol (there were no fuel stations in the immediate vicinity), we turfed out the loaf of ciabatta bread we’d bought in Lusaka (it had become a rock-hard, green weapon of mass destruction) and departed happily on a farm track that would apparently take us to a remote border post called Zombe… eventually. DM

Kapishya Hot Springs Lodge:

Shiwa Ngandu:

Our Epic Road Trip was sponsored by ClemenGold Gin.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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