Are you planning to go camping sometime next month?
It’s a favorite activity in the summer — especially if it’s not raining.
But Cassandra Raun’s camping trip this summer was completely different.
“I was commenting on some photos from my friend Sasha,” said Raun. “Then she sent me a private message on Facebook. She said I should really come and visit her in Zambia.”
Raun and her husband became friends with Sasha Kuzmina and her husband while living in Guyana, and they’ve stayed in touch over the years.
“Sasha really leaned in and convinced us to come,” Raun said.
Raun’s husband, Jeff, wanted to go. So, with just 30 days’ notice, the Raun family — including their three daughters — packed up and flew off for a monthlong African camping trip.
“Each one of us had a carry-on bag and a backpack,” Raun said. “That included our sleeping bag and a pad.”
The outbound trip from Anchorage was a real trek. The first leg was on Alaska Airlines to Seattle. From there, the family took one of the first nonstop flights offered by Turkish Airways to Istanbul.
“We had a long layover in Istanbul,” Raun said. “But we found an open-air youth lounge, which had all sorts of games for the kids as well as free Wi-Fi. It cost about 5 euros each. We just spread out and spent the time lounging.”
After a Turkish Air flight to Johannesburg, the family transferred to a smaller regional jet operated by Proflight Zambia for the final leg to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city.
The Raun family stayed with Kuzmina and her husband for two nights — and realized how important it is to have local hosts.
“They had tents and two vehicles,” Raun said. “They were Toyota Prados, which are not available in the U.S. But my husband wants one now!”
The Prado is a local version of a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV. “The vehicles had a lift package for sand driving, a winch, cooking gear and a rack for trunks on top of the car,” said Raun. “They were totally set up for car camping, complete with radios to talk between the cars.”
The first campsite was in South Luangwa National Park, a 10-hour drive from Lusaka.
“Sasha took us to her favorite campsite overlooking the Luangwa River,” Raun said.
Even though they were camping outside of the park, they saw hippos, crocodiles, elephants and warthogs from their perch above the river.
“We were able to drive in the park during the day wherever we wanted,” Raun said. “But you couldn’t drive in the park after 6 p.m.”
One night, the group hired a local guide to drive in to the park to look for nocturnal wildlife. “We did find some leopards,” said Raun.
“The campsites in Zambia are very nice,” said Raun. “They have bathrooms with showers, as well as deep sinks for doing laundry.”
The group stayed a total of four nights at South Luangwa before heading back to Lusaka. From there, they continued to Lower Zambezi National Park. This park is a 2.5-hour drive from Lusaka.
“We spent lots of time in the car,” Raun said. “Whether it’s driving to the park or in the park itself — you really cannot travel on foot.”
During the group’s two-night stay at Lower Zambezi, they saw a 3-foot-long puff adder, one of the most poisonous snakes in Zambia.
“It’s very unusual to see the snakes, since they are so good at hiding,” Raun said. “But the birds in the campground were obsessed with the snake and were just hollering at it. If it wasn’t for the birds, we would not have seen it.”
Aside from the snake sighting, the family went on an evening boat cruise, where they learned about hippo behavior. “The boat captains are careful not to get between the hippo and deep water,” Raun said. “Hippos are the most dangerous animals, because they are shy and get frightened easily.”
While camping out, the family quickly learned the nighttime etiquette.
“We went to bed early and you don’t get out of your tent,” Raun said. “The hippos and elephants walk through your camp. We heard animals all night long.”
From Lower Zambezi, the group continued to Livingstone, Zambia, the town adjacent to Victoria Falls. That’s about a 10-hour drive.
“Victoria Falls is the one place we stayed at a hotel,” Raun said. “We were so grateful to Sasha because we got the resident rates for the hotel, which was about $200 per night.”
Because they packed all their food and drinks, the group loaded up at grocery stores along the way.
“Zambia was really inexpensive,” Raun said. “Most of the produce they get is from South Africa and the quality is amazing. But Botswana is very expensive.”
After visiting Victoria Falls, the group headed into Botswana. Pro tip: Be sure to have birth certificates of your children at the border. If both parents are not traveling, make sure you have a notarized letter from the other parent authorizing travel with the child. According to Raun, the border guards were very strict. Luckily, she had photos of the kids’ birth certificates on her phone, which the guards accepted.
Raun’s family spent a week in Chobe National Park in Botswana, which is just a one-hour drive from Victoria Falls.
“For the week, we spent about $900 just in park fees,” Raun said. “Additionally, some of the campsites were $250 per night.”
At every campsite, the group would set up three tents: one for Raun and her husband, another for the kids and the third tent for Kuzmina and her daughter.
“We did not see any rhinos,” Raun said. “But we saw hippos, elephants, lions, giraffes, water buffalo, wildebeests, leopards, warthogs, zebras, crocodiles, ostriches, hyenas and lots of antelope.”
Although Raun and her group camped, there were lodges of all sorts at the most popular game-viewing areas. “There’s a wide variety of prices, although everything in Botswana was expensive.”
“A month went by so fast,” Raun said. “On most trips, we’re ready to come home after a while. But nobody wanted to come back from Africa.”
Raun had plenty of stories of letting air out of the tires to drive on sand, then using a portable air compressor to pump them back up when they got back to pavement. “The girls were OK with the long car rides,” Raun said.
“Our youngest daughter, Vivienne (age 10), became quite the game spotter. One day, she just pointed in the bush and said ‘hyena,’ ” said Raun. “I asked her how she knew that and she told me it was just like in ‘Lion King.’ ”
A big incentive in doing the trip promptly was that Kuzmina and her husband may not be in Zambia much longer.
“Part of the expat life is moving around,” Raun said. “They moved to Zambia from Mozambique and they may be gone by the end of the year.”
The Raun family had a more direct route back to the states, catching a Qatar Airways flight to Doha with a tight connection for the nonstop back to Seattle. Qatar Air is a partner with Alaska Airlines.
“Those miles already showed up in my Alaska Airlines account,” Raun said.
Kuzmina and her family may not be in Zambia for long. “But we’re ready to go back,” Raun said.
“We would not have done this trip if it wasn’t for our friends in Lusaka,” Raun said. “She (Kuzmina) knew where to go. They had the SUVs and the cooking gear. And we stayed with them in Lusaka. It was amazing.”