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Zambia: A True Grass-Roots Safari
The key to a good safari is undoubtedly the quality of the guide and the way guests are treated during their stay. Having traveled to Kenya and Botswana on previous trips, I have experienced two of the best safari destinations Africa has to offer. I had heard that Zambia offers more mass safaris, so I was eager to find out what it was like for those looking for a great wildlife experience.
Arriving in the Lower Zambezi with a connecting flight from Lusaka and an overnight flight from London never puts you in the best mood to start your safari. What helps is a warm reception from a confident host, and that came at Chiawa Camp in the form of Grant and Lindsay Cummings. In 1989, Grant founded Chiawa, the first camp located in the Lower Zambezi National Park, and as a founding member of Conservation Lower Zambezi, he increasingly strengthened the camp and the park. His passion for the wild is evident from the moment you meet him. You are encouraged to do all the activities on offer to see how much the park has developed even before you are shown to your tent. Grant’s enthusiasm rubs off on the rest of his team, and our guide Joe can attest to that. On our first night drive with him, we were lucky enough to run into a leopard stalking some impala. We followed the leopard carefully, making sure not to disturb him in his hunt. As we followed Joe commented on his hunting habits; how he lurks, how often he eats and all this while driving through a dense forest… without lights on! The leopard hunt was unsuccessful on this occasion, but it didn’t matter because we learned so much. It will always be difficult to follow such a wonderful meeting. Joe did this confidently, not by racing around the park trying to find us something more exciting, but simply by finding us a clearing, turning off the engine and giving us a commentary on the vast starscape above our heads. Of course, if a dead man passed by, I would call him ‘Superguide’, but that would require a lot of luck.
From the Lower Zambezi the road took me to the northeast and to North and South Luangwa. Our accommodation in North Luangwa was at Kutandala, a simple reed and thatch camp next to the Mwaleshi River. This is the home of Rod and Gus Tether. Not only do they run and manage the camp, but they also raise their two young sons in the bush, which is not bad at all. The emphasis in Kutandala is on walking and Rod is one of the best guides Zambia has to offer. Lion tracking on foot is one option, but the lions weren’t around so we went for a more scenic and refreshing day hike to Mwaleshi Falls. On the way Rod pointed out and identified numerous birds and animals and diverted his walk to see a large pod of hippo rolling in the river, a spectacular sight up close. When we got to the waterfall, Rod’s eyes lit up and it was almost like he was sharing one of his favorite toys with us. Basking in the afternoon sun after a great barbecue, it will be hard to muster up the energy to swim in the rock pools, let alone walk home.
Not to be outdone by Rod’s grilling skills, Gus produces what can only be described as miraculous food from her simple kitchen. Kutandala, like many other camps, has its own salad and vegetable garden on site so that delicious, fresh produce is always at hand. However, when Gus made homemade sorbet and brandy for pudding for lunch, followed by homemade ice cream in a bowl of ice later that evening, I was truly amazed. I would challenge any London chef to produce such high quality food with such limited resources in such a remote location. Food is an important part of life on safari, and Gus’s was the best I experienced in Zambia.
Robin Pope Safaris is one of the most successful operations in South Luangwa and Nsefu Camp is located on the eastern banks of the Luangwa River in the heart of the rich game area. Of course the game must be there, but a good guide will be able to find it and talk about it with confidence. Our guide in Nsefu was Kerry. This was the first female guide I had seen since being piloted and guided by a 400 meter tall woman in Zimbabwe. She proved to be an excellent guide so I was eagerly anticipating to see what Kerry could show us on our night drive. I heard she was good with birds so I decided to put her to the test. “How about we find some owls?” I asked as we left. Within 10 minutes Kerry found us an owl. “Where?” We all said, searching the trees for a big, fluffy bird. “In that bush over there,” Kerry pointed out, pointing to a bush two hundred meters from the trail. With the help of large binoculars I found our owl, a pearl owl, the size of a dove. Impressive place! Later in the drive, after the sun had set, we encountered a pair of porcupines, dimly lit by the moonlight. We watched them with the flashlight for a while before I asked if we could get closer. Unfazed by the steep bank that we and the land cruiser would have to tackle, Kerry set off giving a perfect four by four demonstration. As we approached, Kerry turned off the lights. “I’m still learning,” she said. “I just discovered last week that if you turn off the lights you can get up to 20 meters close to porcupines.” As a result, we got a very close look at these unusual animals.
Our final destinations were Kafue National Park and the Busanga Plains, about an hour’s flight west of Lusaka. Busanga is the only place in Zambia where cheetahs are regularly seen. The wide open plains that flood after the December rains offer perfect habitat during the dry months for these elegant cats, but searching for them in the long grass requires the skill of a good guide. This time it was Lexon, who grew up in the area, knows Busanaga like the back of his hand, and together with Benson, his eagle spotter, made sure we saw the cheetahs.
When it comes to tracking cheetahs, a guide who lives in the camp has a clear advantage over the average guest who only spends maybe three or four days there. The guide will know the animals’ territory and when they were last seen, although of course he still has to find them. I was only at the Busanga camp for 16 hours, but Lexon and Benson readily accepted the challenge. Sure enough, within an hour of arriving at camp, we found five cheetahs (a mother and her four one-year-old cubs) basking in the gentle rays of the setting sun. A good guide thinks long term and by giving a mother and her cubs distance at their early ages, he has earned their trust. The result was five cheetahs approaching the Land Rover for some of the best photo opportunities I’ve ever had.
I came back from Zambia completely impressed with the quality of management and housekeeping. I found that a similar standard was evident in all the camps I visited. I recently traveled to Botswana, surely the most effective of all safari destinations, and to Kenya, visiting some of Africa’s pioneering and conservation-minded ranches. While Zambia can’t quite match the crystal clear waters of the Okavango Delta or the density of game in some of Kenya’s best game reserves, for me it offers a unique African experience. The accommodation is comfortable but not fussy, the housekeeping is excellent and the management can only be described as brilliant. In Zambia, natural Africa is allowed to take center stage.
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