There’s something about the light in Zambia that is so enchanting. Whether you’re gazing out over the wide Luangwa River at morning coffee with perpetual din of hippos echoing around you and the clear blue sky as your backdrop, or enjoying a gentle game drive through the dappled golden sunlight of a mahogany forest in the Lower Zambezi, the scene invariable manages to be quite beautiful.
I was lucky enough to spend two weeks there in June exploring the Lower Zambezi and the South Luangwa Valley National Parks and was totally blown away. Not for the game-viewing in particular but more the whole ambience and ethos of the safari camps, the diversity of experiences and the beauty of the landscapes, and I became quite fond of the background noise of hippos and croaking frogs. What’s more, over the whole trip I came close to a Wi-Fi signal just a couple of times, got out on foot nearly every day in the Luangwa Valley (‘home of the walking safari’), ate the most delicious home cooked food, and had ‘sundowners’ in the most beautiful surroundings, barely seeing another vehicle.
The Lower Zambezi has to be one of my favourite places I’ve visited. After a long journey of nearly 24 hours via Johannesburg and Lusaka, I landed at the Jeki airstrip to be met with the beautiful smell of wild basil as we enjoyed a gentle game drive through to camp. That day we saw a big herd of buffalo, a leopard with a kill and two male lion padding through a particularly dark night – what a way to start! The game viewing in the Lower Zambezi is focused around the floodplains and I had a really amazing few days. Daytime sightings of relaxed leopard, elephants everywhere, and even a hyaena killing a warthog. Travelling in early June meant it was not too hot and the wildlife didn’t have to shelter during the heat of the day, as they do when it gets warmer (from mid-September onwards), so the parade was pretty constant.
The Zambezi River is, of course, a big highlight and lovely boat cruises allow you to experience the spectacle from a different perspective, watching elephant swimming across the river, using their trunks as snorkels, and the abundance of birdlife and hippos galore. There is nothing quite like sipping your gin and tonic at sunset with the call of an African fish eagle in the background as you float gently down a channel. For the more adventurous, canoeing is another option and the peace and quiet of gliding through the water is only interrupted by a slap of an oar from your guide to warn off inquisitive hippos and crocodiles.
After three nights in the Lower Zambezi, I flew to the South Luangwa and spent eleven nights exploring the whole park. One of the best things about the Luangwa Valley is the diversity of the area. You can easily spend a week, ten days or even longer exploring the different sections. The remote southern section, where you find the beautiful Bushcamp Company camps, is a complete contrast to the core game viewing area of the central Mfuwe sector, whilst the stunning ebony forests and open plains of the northern Nsefu sector near Kaingo produces excellent game viewing as well as the opportunity for escapists to explore on foot from the remote Chikoko trails camps – a walking enthusiast’s heaven which is only accessible on foot.
The Chikoko trails was a real highlight for me. All five of your senses are heightened when you’re walking in big game area. You’re so alert for any clue you may get as to what you might come across next; a smell, a track, a snap of a branch. On our afternoon walk, we heard what sounded like a lion nearby and spent the next half hour creeping through the bush in the direction of the noise. It went against all my natural instinct to head towards the source of the sound, but the excitement and adrenaline and expectation is too exciting to not continue. We never actually found the lion, but how I wished I could have stayed for a few more days and continued the adventure.
The next morning we got so lucky with a big flash of ginger feathers soaring right above our heads, and a Pel’s fishing owl landing in full view in a tree right ahead of us. There’s something quite magical about the two camps too. With only three chalets in each camp, there can only ever be a maximum of 6 guests on each walk. I stayed at Chikoko in charming and unpretentious reed chalets built up off the floor on a platform, giving you lovely views of the remote bush. The main areas are simple but very inviting and the perfect place to enjoy that ice cold drink after your morning walk. The other camp, Crocodile, consists of reeded chalets and most safaris will combine a number of nights in each, walking between the two.
Kafunta’s new satellite camp Three Rivers (located in the deep south of the park at the point where the Luangwa, Kapamba and Lusangazi rivers meet each other) has a stunning location looking out across the river, perfectly positioned for sundowner drinks. Each of the beautiful tents has its own sleep-out platform attached. I braved it on my own and as it was full moon, everything was so brightly lit it felt like somebody had forgotten to turn off the lights. At about 1am, I was awoken by an elephant shaking a tree right beneath me and I sat and watched, trying to stay as inconspicuous as possible!
There are, in fact, too many highlights to recall from my eleven nights in the Luangwa Valley; watching a leopard creep across the riverbed in broad daylight on one of my midday transfers; getting acquainted with the friendly frogs of the Luangwa Valley, which appeared in nearly every camp, softly croaking next to me as I brushed my teeth; eating dinner out in the middle of the dry riverbed under the clear night sky at the pleasantly simple bush camp, Nkonzi, watching a honey badger scamper across near us as we ate; seeing wild dog at Kaingo Camp; turning off the vehicle and all the spotlights on a night drive, as we waited for a leopard to hunt a completely unaware guinea fowl gently clucking as it nestled in for the night (the leopard missed, and skulked away into the night); gently pressing the brakes on my bicycle as we waited for a herd of elephant to cross the road in front of us whilst on a cycling safari with John Coppinger of Tafika Camp; the amazing sunsets; watching a slightly horrifying but utterly fascinating three meter python slither across the road; the exciting feeling of being on foot in this raw wilderness – I could go on and on!
Zambia is a truly rewarding safari destination. The short safari season, from June through to October, has meant that the larger, more corporate, safari companies have largely stayed away and the majority of the properties have remained as small intimate bush camps, with real character.
I only travelled to the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa on this trip which are the two core areas for game-viewing but Kafue, the North Luangwa, Liuwa Plains, Kasanka National Park and the Bangweulu wetlands are even more off the beaten track and ready to reward any serious safari-goer with an in-depth and specialist experience. It’s also very easy to combine a safari in Zambia with a stop in Livingstone to see the magnificent Victoria Falls, or you can fly to Lake Malawi from the Luangwa Valley for a bit of rest and relaxation after your safari.
Frances stayed at Amanzi Camp, Old Mondoro Camp, Chongwe River Camp, Kafunta River Lodge, Three Rivers Camp, Chamilandu, Nkonzi Bush Camp, Kaingo Camp, Mwamba Bushcamp, Tafika Camp, Chikoko Camp and Nkwali Camp.
Frances site inspected Anabezi Luxury Tented Camp, Sausage Tree Camp, Potato Bush Camp, Chiawa Camp, Chongwe River House, Island Bush Camp, Bilimungwe, Chindeni Camp, Puku Ridge, Mfuwe Ldoge, Luwi Bushcamp, Nsolo Bush Camp, Kakuli Bush Camp, Mchenja Camp, Lion Camp, Crocodile Camp, Nsefu Camp, Tena Tena, Luangwa River Lodge, Flatdogs Camp, Time + Tide Chinzombo, Luangwa Safari House and Robin’s House.