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Mary and the unexpected pleasures of Zambia – October, 2012

Zambia is, to me, the perfect safari destination; wonderful wildlife viewed from both land and water, spectacular scenery, small, intimate camps and some of the friendliest people you could wish to meet.

I spent two weeks in Zambia in October, a time of year which showcases to perfection the incredible diversity of landscapes and amazing game. Months of strong African sun and no rain had turned the landscape brown and arid with little vegetation left on the trees and no ground water, making the game both more mobile and visible as they gravitate towards the river for water.

Having been there before I thought that I knew what to expect in Zambia but what this trip reminded me of are the unexpected pleasures, and the occasional sadness, that travelling in Africa can produce.

My travels took me to the Kafue National Park with its rich diversity of antelope and amazing birdlife, the South Luangwa National Park where I saw leopard on almost every game drive and the breathtaking Lower Zambezi National Park where the mighty Zambezi River is the life force for both the wildlife and the communities

My surprises began deep in Kafue National Park, upstream from the charming Kaingu Camp, where the serene Kafue River had receded to levels where giant boulders were exposed resulting in pockets of rapids and natural rock pools which were safe to paddle in, and keep cool during the heat of the day. An afternoon spent with feet dipped in crystal clear water whilst adding sightings, including the elusive African finfoot, to my ever growing bird list was idyllic and a welcome respite from the heat.

At the north-western extreme of the Kafue are the remote Busanga Plains. On first sight these appear to be beautiful and expansive plains dotted with many of the 20 or so species of antelope that reside here, but when a hippo suddenly appeared as if from nowhere I had to re-evaluate what I was looking at. I soon realised that the plains are criss-crossed by a myriad of water channels which are covered with floating grass and provide shelter for hippos and crocodiles and which are a haven for water birds.

The Luangwa Valley also had surprises to unfurl. The photographic hides at Kaingo and Tafika Camps are amazing for close up photos of the beautiful and iridescent carmine bee-eaters and I felt like an honoured guest at the very first sighting of two tiny lion cubs as they were introduced to the rest of their pride in the enchanting Ebony Forest.

But the greatest surprise for me, a woman with an intense dislike of heights and a predisposition of going jelly legged at the merest thought of anything not firmly attached to the ground, was soaring like an eagle 200 feet above a herd of buffalo in a micro light piloted by John Coppinger, the owner of Tafika Camp. It was simply magical.

One of the sadder moments occurred as I walked from Luwi to Nsolo, both camps operated by Norman Carr Safaris, the forefathers of walking safaris. My guide Andrew had stopped and seemed to be staring at a distant rock before he declared that the ‘rock’ was an elephant and he was certain that it was no longer alive. We stayed still for quite some while, ensuring that the remaining herd was not hidden in the tree line, before slowly approaching to confirm that it was dead. It was a young male, around 15 years old, and with no apparent signs of illness or, thankfully, of injury caused by man, and it had very obviously died within the previous hour.  His death may remain a mystery to me but not to the park authorities who were summoned in order to both further investigate this mystery and to retrieve the ivory.

In spite of all the surprises there remains a constant in Zambia; the opportunity to stay in small, sometimes owner run, camps where a warm, personal welcome and a convivial atmosphere await you.

Over time this style of accommodation has become more scarce but within Zambia they are still alive and kicking and offering what is, for me, one of the best overall African safari experiences, you could ask for….