On safari, every day brings fresh discoveries. Elephants as bulky as ambulances file silently through the bush. Hippos wallow in weed-covered pools, clumped together like dumplings in soup. Rival impalas clash horns with shocking force, while others pronk and stare. Fish eagles screech, starlings shimmer in the glare and lions stagger into the shade to snooze. But the best things of all? They happen when you least expect them to.
It’s an hour or so past sunset, the last rays have ebbed away and we’re motoring slowly back to our lodge. Beyond the sandy track, the visible world has shrunk to a patchwork of shadows, swept by the beam of our spotlight. Occasionally, we pick out a glimmer of eyeshine: a wakeful antelope, or a scrub hare quivering in the grass. Frogs clink and quoip from a nearby lagoon and our noses twitch, alert to the cool, damp aromas of night.
Suddenly, there’s a flash of movement. Like lightning, a trio of zebra dash across our path, lit first by the beam, then by our headlights.
Manda Chisanga, our driver and guide from The Bushcamp Company, brakes swiftly. “There must be a cat on their tail!” he whispers. The zebra are in tight formation: a mare, a stallion and between them, sprinting for dear life, a tiny youngster. In a split second, their pursuer appears, a blur of sinew, muscle and spots. It’s a leopard. The stallion kicks out and the cat, foiled, stalls.
“That baby could have been born today,” says Manda. “Welcome to the world, little zebra! Looks like you’ve passed your first test.”
My mother, who’s in the front beside Manda, is beyond excited. Her eyes are out on stalks.
We’re exploring the world-class South Luangwa National Park, where leopards thrive. But we hadn’t dared hope to see one on our first evening, let alone in such dramatic circumstances. Sightings of this calibre don’t happen every day, even here.
“Trust you to have world-class beginner’s luck!” I say.
I’m fortunate to have been on safari many times, but for my mother, aged 73, this is a first — her first safari, her first visit to Africa, her first journey south of the equator. You wouldn’t guess it, though. Fascinated by everything, she’s in her element, chatting knowledgeably with Manda and revelling in every experience.
For me, our adventure is a first in a different way. My mother and I have travelled together before, lapping up art exhibitions and lingering in cafes in European cities. But this is my first chance to show her a different world, one I love with a passion. In the process, I’m hitting refresh on an experience I know well. By sharing a safari with someone I’ve known all my life, I’m seeing Africa with new eyes.
Zambia offers its visitors two of Africa’s mightiest rivers, the Zambezi and its tributary the Luangwa. Back in the 1990s, when The Bushcamp Company started running safaris beside the Luangwa and two of Africa’s best riverbank camps, Chiawa Camp and Chongwe River Camp, opened in the Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia wasn’t an obvious destination for first-timers. Most stuck to Kenya and Tanzania; the adventurous few who travelled further south typically chose Zimbabwe or, if they had deep pockets, Botswana and South Africa. It was only when Zimbabwe’s tourism industry collapsed in the early 2000s that neighbouring Zambia stepped into the spotlight with a safe, competitive alternative. These days, its best safari hideouts are classics in their own right — rustic, intimate and committed to excellence in guiding and conservation.
Unlike many African countries, Zambia allows night drives in its national parks — a treat if you’re intrigued by the dark and its pungent, velvety mysteries. Zambian safari operators have a knack for bringing tourists and locals together through sensitive, effective development projects. I’m aware that, although reasonably fit, my mother isn’t interested in Zambia’s more famous speciality, walking safaris — pioneered by legendary local guides like Norman Carr, Phil Berry and Robin Pope.
An eager traveller, my mother took to our pre-departure preparations with minimal fuss — getting jabs, asking neighbours to water her plants, buying anti-malarials at Asda and insurance from her bank. Once you’re over 65, travelling carries hidden costs. Even with a loyalty discount, my mother’s single-trip policy was well over twice the price of my annual premium.
Undaunted, she paid up and worked through our packing list. The promise of same-day laundry meant we didn’t need much, but on safari, clothes in neutral tones are best. Blue and black attract tsetse flies and bright or pale colours stand out too much, even if you’re not going walking. “That’s my entire summer wardrobe out, then,” said my mother. A shopping trip ensued.
Primed for strict luggage limits, my mother proved expert at packing light. Before we checked in at Heathrow, she pulled out a few items to ask my advice. I’d recommended a sun hat that wouldn’t blow off in an open vehicle, so she’d sewn ribbons onto hers. “Brilliant,” I said, feeling like a teacher checking my pupil’s coursework. She then produced three types of insect repellent, bought in a rare wobble of indecision. “Let’s just take them all,” I said, feeling a sudden need to preserve all my mental energy for the journey ahead.
I needn’t have worried. My mother coped patiently with our three flights, despite her artificial hip causing a frenzy of beeping at each security check. She loved people-watching at the airport in Nairobi, her first taste of real-life, modern-day Africa — a mishmash of travellers in smart heels, showy trainers, urban sportswear and elaborate traditional gowns. By the time we arrived at Mfuwe Lodge and Manda greeted us like old friends, I knew everything was going to be fine.
Manda had a suggestion. One of the local schools that Bushcamp sponsors had won a music and dance competition and was holding an impromptu concert to celebrate. Would we like to drop in? Tired but keen, we said yes. So we found ourselves in the schoolyard of Chiwawatala Primary School among ranks of radiant children, their faces glowing as their friends and teachers sang and danced. It was the best welcome we could have imagined.
Aardvark to zebra
My hunch that Mfuwe Lodge would suit a first-timer of a certain age is proving correct. Famous for the elephants that, in mango season, parade through reception to feast beneath the tree beyond, it’s also highly professional, with thoughtful staff, a beautiful, unfussy spa and comfortable vehicles — invaluable for anyone with creaky joints or a bad back.
After a couple of days of superb wildlife-watching, we agree we’d like to learn more about life outside the park. Bushcamp’s imaginative approach to community engagement earned it a National Geographic World Legacy Award in 2016, but it’s the villagers who are the real winners.
Operations manager Mtimba Zulu guides us around the scattered settlement of Mfuwe, home to secondhand clothes traders — their wares spread on the ground — and businesses with colourful names: Captain Biggie General Dealers, God Is Able Phone Accessories, Pillar of Cloud Restaurant. On a back lane, we chat to women using a borehole funded by the Luangwa Conservation and Community Fund, created by Bushcamp’s director, Andy Hogg. “The pump is a big time-saver, as well as a life-saver,” says Martha Njobvu. “It used to take me three hours a day to bring water from the river.”
As we prepare to visit Mfuwe Secondary School, I check how my mother’s holding up, but she’s not flagging. A retired university dental school administrator, she enjoys the company of young people, and smiles with approval as scholarship pupils discuss their favourite subjects.
On another day, we get creative at Mfuwe’s successful social enterprise Tribal Textiles. Workshop manager Moses Musa gives us a guided tour of the batik and sewing studios, then we settle down with paints and brushes to spend a blissful couple of hours decorating cushion covers. “By creating jobs for local men and women, we’re helping conservation,” says Moses. “With money coming in, people are less inclined to set snares to trap wildlife. But tourism in Zambia dropped last year, and that hit us hard.”
As our trip unfolds, my mother delights in the little surprises that safari companies love to spring on their guests, from brunches in the bush to sundowners on the banks of the Kapamba River, a shallow tributary of the Luangwa — its crocodile-free water cooling our feet. Meanwhile, the wildlife continues to wow her. Familiar with Africa from a lifetime of watching nature documentaries, she’s fascinated by the subtleties that film-makers rarely show — tiny harvester termite mounds, for example, and the abstract patterns traced by larvae onto rain tree leaves. Some phenomena are definitely best appreciated in 3D — how an elephant can disappear into a wall of green foliage, why zebra stripes provide perfect camouflage and how similar South Luangwa looks, at certain times of day, to an English pastoral scene.
Encountering everything from excitable hornbills to endangered wild dogs on the prowl, her beginner’s luck is soon proving something of a lucky streak. One evening, near Chindeni — one of the seasonal hideaways that give The Bushcamp Company its name — we spot an aardvark in plain view, a sighting so rare that afterwards we all laugh at the magic of it. It’s as if we’re ticking off the entire safari alphabet, from A to Z.
To continue our trip, we fly south to the Lower Zambezi National Park, swooping along the Zambezi itself on our descent. Below, the purple-brown, Paisley-shaped outlines of hippos pattern the shallows. If protected, hippos can live to 50 years of age and on this stretch of river, flanked by national parks, they’re prolific. At our first stop, Chongwe River Camp, they make their presence felt through a round-the-clock chorus of chuckles and honks, like louche old men telling jokes in the bar.
Our other neighbours, to our delight, are a colony of white-fronted bee-eaters, whose aerial ballet plays out over the bank near our glamorous tented suite. Even they deliver something unexpected — when a monitor lizard appears, they switch into battle formation, mobbing it so fiercely it buries its head in an old burrow to escape.
With freshwater at its feet, graceful mahogany and winter thorn trees shading its banks and russet hills at its back, Lower Zambezi is one of the most beautiful swathes of wilderness in the region and indeed in Africa. Once the private hunting reserve of Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, it’s now a conservation powerhouse; as of 2016, it’s also Africa’s first carbon neutral national park. The engine behind its success is Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), which runs educational workshops for local schoolchildren and helps villagers tackle the challenges of living alongside elephants and predators. CEO Ian Stevenson chats to us about its latest project: a programme to train local dog handlers who’ll be deployed on wildlife protection patrols.
By the time we reach our last camp, it’s hard not to brag about how much we’ve experienced. But Chiawa Camp is a place that makes you feel refreshed, it’s as if we’re starting our trip all over again. Grant Cumings, a co-founder of CLZ, launched Chiawa with his father, Dave, and brother, Kevin, in 1991, when Lower Zambezi was still in shock from the loss of many of its black rhinos and many of its elephants to poachers. Originally pretty basic, now its luxurious tents are full of pleasingly old-fashioned touches.
Conservation informs everything Grant’s team does. “For years, we’ve been working towards bringing back rhinos to Lower Zambezi. It’ll take a high degree of collaboration, but we’ve proved that’s feasible. I’m hopeful the time will come,” he says.
We enjoy gentle drives and serene boat trips, watching elephants inch down the river bank to drink. Finally, it’s our last evening with head guide Daniel Susiku, and we’re conscious we have a record to maintain — a leopard a day. Sure enough, we encounter a beautiful female, reclining like a sphinx beside the track.
As Daniel turns the vehicle to leave, our tracker urges him to stop. In an instant, the leopard has sprinted across the clearing and pounced on a male impala considerably bigger than her. Astonished at her strength, we watch her bring him down, only for a pair of thieving hyenas to barge in. We drive away, railing at the injustice of life in the bush. But there’s a postscript to this. Word later reaches us that a nearby herd of elephants, fearful for their young, came thundering up, scaring the hyenas away from the kill and allowing the leopard a chance to return. My mother, who likes a happy ending, is delighted. And so, I have to admit, am I.
Proflight Zambia flies from Lusaka to Mfuwe in South Luangwa and to the Lower Zambezi Royal Airport.
When to go
While the best time to go to South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi is between July and September, with dry weather and manageable temperatures, the rainy season from December to June can also be enjoyable for its green landscapes and abundant birds. The seasonal bushcamps are closed for at least part of the rainy season, but permanent lodges such as Mfuwe Lodge remain open and offer discounted rates. October and November, however, can be uncomfortably hot.
Zambia, by Chris McIntyre (Bradt Travel Guides). RRP: £18.99
First-Time Africa, by Emma Gregg and Richard Trillo (Rough Guides). RRP £8.99
How to do it
Natural World Safaris can create a 13-day bespoke safari combining seven nights with The Bushcamp Company in South Luangwa (two nights at Mfuwe Lodge and five at any of their six bushcamps)and four nights at Chiawa Camp in Lower Zambezi from £6,770 per person.
Alternatively, their Two Rivers Secret Season Safari special includes three nights with The Bushcamp Company (one night at Mfuwe Lodge and two at Kapamba Bushcamp or Zungulila Bushcamp) plus three nights at Kasaka River Lodge, Lower Zambezi from £3,680 per person.
Both options include full-board accommodation, safari activities, transfers, internal flights and flights from Heathrow with Kenya Airways.
Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)