THE LOWER ZAMBEZI
The Heart of a Zambia Safari
The Lower Zambezi – on Zambia’s southern border with Zimbabwe – is distinctly different from South Luangwa National Park. This makes it the perfect complement for a Zambia safari.
Now halfway through their Zambia safari, Leora Rothschild and her companions Angela and Thomas departed the luxurious and wonderfully hospitable Sungani Camp for the 90-minute flight southwards.
Jeki airport – little more than a rough-hewn strip of land punctuated with small thatched buildings – is the entry point to the Lower Zambezi, and here the group was met off the light aircraft by Chris, the head guide of her next destination: Chiawa Camp.
The 45-minute boat trip upriver was the quintessential introduction to the Lower Zambezi. Hippo emitted plumes of water from their nostrils at the boat’s approach, while crocodiles basked and elephant fed on the verdant banks. With wildlife at every turn, it became abundantly clear just how important and integral the river is to life in this southerly region of Zambia.
A warm welcome, a refreshing drink and a much-appreciated cool face towel awaited at Chiawa Camp, property manager Juliet greeting them from their boat ride as if a long lost friend.
Hospitality at almost any Zambia safari camp, and any camp Africa-wide, is wonderfully friendly. You feel immediately embraced by it almost with a sense of a long-awaited homecoming. What set Chiawa apart for Leora was the gentleness and humility with which this occurred. There are the familiar formalities and bespoke professionalism, but without the pomp and fuss sometimes displayed. You glide into the experience as if you belong, soothed by Juliet’s nurturing personality and immediately at ease on the property. This imbibes a stay at Chiawa with an intrinsically calming essence, where one can breathe freely, take time and enjoy a certain rejuvenation, despite the daily itinerary reflecting that of other camps. Despite their superb attentiveness, staff aren’t there to serve you, they are there to share in your delight and ease you into the rhythm of nature.
The party’s arrival coincided with an inquisitive elephant’s visit to camp. As the obligatory welcome briefing was given, he found a convenient scratching post on the nearest villa, its occupants peering wide-eyed through their netted window at their impromptu guest just inches away.
It is for this reason that guests are always escorted, day or night, at Chiawa and most of the Lower Zambezi’s lodges, though incidents are incredibly rare.
Easing into their private ‘wallow pool’ – something between a bath and a plunge pool – Leora, Angela and Thomas took in the spectacular scenery across the Zambezi before taking their first game drive in the region. As they set out, their guide informed them that they had missed a rather active pack of wild dogs by just one day, a disappointment – particularly for Thomas, who was especially eager to see the canines – that would later be increased when they discovered that a pack had come to Mwamba Camp in the South Luangwa the day after their departure.
Despite this, the afternoon’s drive was a wonderful introduction to the Lower Zambezi. In South Luangwa National Park, small areas of woodland are interspersed across more desolate grasslands. Here in the Lower Zambezi, winterthorn trees create a more expansive forested landscape, elephant and other species feasting on their seeds in the dappled light.
After sundowners on the riverbank, what they expected to be a now-familiar night drive back to camp soon took an unexpected turn. Approaching an alcove on a small cliff face, they could see the blinking of camp lights on the rock face, a flickering braai open fire manned by several chefs and a large banquet table surrounded by her fellow camp guests. This would be a dinner as exceptional as it was unforgettable.
Chatting with guests from all over the world, they sampled traditional Zambian foods, including chibwawa (sautéed pumpkin leaves, pronounced chihuahua – rather alarming for Thomas as a life-long vegan!) and a staple of local cuisine, nshima. Made from pounded maize flour, nshima most closely resembles polenta, the firm, fine paste baked over an open fire and served with a delicious, warm salsa-like sauce. Though conventionally eaten with the fingers, the well-behave group thought it was in their best interests to use the silverware provided.
In the inky blackness of the Zambian night, the guests slowly filtered away to their respective vehicles, returning to camp sated, captivated and eager for the coming day. For Leora, Angela and Thomas that would mean venturing into the park on foot.
This would be the first and only hike of their trip to the ‘home of the walking safari’, but the fascinating excursion was well worth the wait. Accompanied by an armed ranger and guide, they threesome set out as the sun slowly rose, driving into the forests before alighting and continuing on foot. Though large game can be seen on a walking safari, the group spotting numerous elephants, hippo, crocodile and antelope species from afar, its purpose is more to draw one’s attention to the minutiae of the bush.
Their wonderfully informative guide educated them on the network of tracks left by passing wildlife, their scat and the purpose of numerous seeds and plants in the ecosystem. As he was conveying another scintillating fact, a large crack or snap could be heard. The guide suggested it was a crocodile slapping its tail in a small lagoon nearby to scare fish towards its waiting jaws, but the truth would soon become apparent.
Spotted on the previous day’s game drive, the croc was now immersed in the shallow water, but the previous day she had been basking on a sandbank. Investigating further, the group discovered her nest, hatched eggs and tiny footprints strewn across the soft sand.
As the guide shared more information, another crack was heard, and it was then that they realized the mother crocodile had a terrapin in her mouth, her powerful bite resonantly cracking through its shell.
The walk complete, after two leisurely hours across a little over a mile (2.2km), they met their driver on the riverbank for morning coffee before returning to camp to hastily pack for the next transfer. But Chiawa would hold one last surprise for them.
Escorted to the small riverside dock by Juliet, their host, Leora, Angela and Thomas boarded a boat, noting that their bags had not yet been loaded. The boat took off with assurances they would return to camp, and soon was brought aground in the middle of the river where a superb lunch was revealed. With the current lapping the boat hull, nearby hippo hungrily eyeing her delicious feast, and a mimosa in hand, they thoroughly enjoy their last hour in the warm hospitality of Chiawa Camp and its staff.
A little over one hour downstream, the group alighted once more, welcomed to Chiawa’s sister camp, Old Mondoro, by the wonderfully genial Mark and Madelein. The young couple have accumulated a wealth of experience in both guiding and hospitality at numerous camps across Africa and were the perfect hosts, Madelein explaining the camp’s protocols and features, while Mark offered insight into its wildlife.
Old Mondoro sits on the intersection of the Zambezi and a wooded glade, its suites hugging the bank of a small inlet where elephant and waterbuck regularly come to drink and, as Mark suggested, if one were to run their open-air bath, may even cross to enjoy the cool fresh bathwater.
With their youthful exuberance, Mark and Madelein provide a wonderfully fun and caring, yet consummately professional service, and this infectious mannerism was reflected in the other staff members.
Arriving at their lodge, the open-air shower and cooling bath were a welcome respite for the team on the warm Zambian day. Set on a creek amongst winter thorn forests, with elephant graze on the far bank, their respective villas immersed them in the surrounding nature. Venturing into this absolutely magical region, with dappled light streaming through wooded glades where impala and waterbuck graze and elephants dust bath, they enjoyed a tranquil game drive in the last light of day.
Coming upon an elephant family, the guide stopped the vehicle, allowing safe passage – safe for both the elephant and their audience. To the onlookers’ delight, the matriarch, who had been wallowing in the mud of a nearby pool, nuzzled a nearby tree before depositing her posterior on a fallen trunk, rubbing back and forth to itch a scratch that no investigative trunk or probing tusk could reach.
Babies in tow, the herd slowly wandered off into the setting sun and, under the cautiously watchful eyes of zebra and ground hornbill, they enjoyed another sundowner before returning to camp for a superb dinner. As the last bite was swallowed, Mark hastily beckoned Leora and her fellow guests to follow.
Though usually shy, honey badgers have an inquisitive and mischievous tendency, and Old Mondoro has been made home to one such brave and adventurous individual. Known to raid the kitchen and staff quarters, on this night he was spotted in full view, feasting on discarded chicken bones scavenged from the supposedly secure camp bins. With a wide and enraptured smile, they watched as he tucked into his midnight feast before scurrying into the bush – a rare and special treat for Angela in particular, who is rather fond of these grumpy denizens of the bush.
The incessant itinerary left time enough for a morning drive before departure, and with whispers of a leopard sighting, they set off with their guide.
The big cats are most certainly the most desired sight on any game drive, but this spotted feline had a particular performance with which to amaze them. Leopard often reside in trees. Unlike the larger lion, they are superbly agile amongst the branches, but this male was particularly relaxed. Well-fed, as evidenced by his bulging belly, he was reclined in a curiously humanlike manner on a large branch intertwined with a web of vines.
Gazing down nonchalantly at the vehicle, he seemed not to have a care in the world, his casual repose as impressive as it was comical.
Their arrivals and departures were rapidly becoming consistently punctuated by the extraordinary, and Old Mondoro would provide no less. As the trio were chatting with guests over their farewell lunch, a lone elephant meandered towards the dining lodge. A little alarmed, though perfectly safe within the lodge, they watched on as the elephant reached high onto the canvas roof above the lunch table to gather sought-after winter thorn seeds. Casually munching while maintaining eye contact with the captivated diners, the satisfied elephant then retired to the cooling waters of the river, on which transport awaited for their next transfer and her penultimate destination: Lolebezi.
The newest of African Bush Camps’ portfolio of properties, Lolebezi is impeccably and unapologetically luxurious. Welcomed with the obligatory face towel and welcome drink, Leora, Angela and Thomas were then treated to a complimentary hand massage. As wonderfully indulgent as this welcome was, it was tantalizingly little after their frenetic 10 days of travel, Leora and Thomas both succumbing to full-body massages in the private spa overlooking the bushland and adjacent lagoon, undoing the knots of their extensive journey.
Though equally as immersed in its wilderness setting as other properties, Lolobezi exudes luxury. Expansive villas provide all that one could wish for, from kitchenette to outdoor rain shower and a sumptuous bath overlooking the Zambezi. It would be easy, when cocooned in this exotic suite, to forget one’s location, thinking instead that they had been whisked away in their sleep to a premier city hotel. But one step from the door or gaze through the expansive windows would plunge them immediately back into the unfettered natural realms of the Lower Zambezi, hippo conversations and the distant trumpeting of elephant an audible reminder of the wilderness that lay beyond this canvased sanctuary.
This forms a tangible disconnect between lodge and nature, but one that may well be readily enjoyed by a certain breed of client. Indeed, a wedding party in residence was enjoying precisely that, indulging in the lodge’s luxurious pampering and opulent facilities before exploring the forested surroundings on a game drive.
Sundowners took a unique turn on the second-last evening of their Zambia adventure. While most are taken as part of an afternoon game drive, they instead boarded a boat to take off downstream. Fish eagles circled low overhead, peering into the mirky waters of the Zambezi for their dinner, elephant grazed sedately on the long grasses at the riverbank, and hippo looked on with curiosity before submerging into the depths.
Returning to camp at twilight, a communal boma dinner awaited. Chefs stood behind the blazing coals, quick to enthusiastically share the evening’s offerings, including traditional nshima (pounded maize) and a wide selection of expertly created dishes.
Escorted to their villas on Lolebezi’s comfortable golf cart, a certain disappointment hung over Leora, Angela and Thomas in the knowledge that this would be the second-last sleep before the conclusion of her Zambia safari.
After a light breakfast at the boma, the morning’s game drive beckoned. While equally as abundant as those they had previously experienced, there was a charming and cheeky display awaiting by some of the region’s juvenile residents. A mixed-age troupe of elephant were found dusting themselves in a dried riverbed and, as the group watched on a juvenile flopped, puppy-like, to the ground while his younger sibling adorably investigated the purposes and capabilities of her trunk.
No sooner had the vehicle begun rolling again than it stopped by a fallen tree around which a family of baboons were foraging. Seeing the approaching vehicle, and as if rehearsed, one youngster rushed up the trunk and began posing for the camera as if for a fashion shoot, turning this way and that to ensure that his best side and most dashing look was captured by his entertained audience.
Much was in abundance on this Zambia safari; wonderful hospitality, unfettered luxury, spectacular experiences and a plethora of wildlife, but unfortunately time was not one of these things and so onward they traveled to their final property.
On the short voyage upstream, a curious sight appeared on the surface of the water, and it took Leora, Angela and Thomas a moment to understand what they were seeing. The most lush vegetation of the Zambezi often lies on the many islands scattered along the river and, as the river taxi continued onwards, they realized that what they had seen was an elephant keen to feast on this lush salad bar. In a river teeming with crocodile and hippo, a river crossing can be perilous to say the least, and several of the elephant she had seen during her Zambia safari bore the scars of such encounters, with stunted trunks and tails.
But this large bull seemed fearless, perhaps well-experienced or maybe simply too imposing for even the most hungry and committed of crocs to dare tangle with. Trunk raised as a snorkel, he continued his steady progression as the boat sailed towards its destination.
Floating sedately above the Zambezi, Sausage Tree Camp instills a distinctly relaxed feel. Time is at your disposal here, the breeze gently rustling the surrounding trees and staff somewhat retreating into the background – always on hand should one require anything, but allowing space and freedom to do as you please.
With such threatening wildlife taking refuge in the Zambezi, few would be willing to dabble their toes in its translucent waters, but the afternoon would be an exception to this fervent rule.
After unpacking for what would be the last time, they returned to the riverside, boarding a boat to be transported to a large sandbar within the river. Here, a large sunshade had been erected with a communal dining table beneath. Leaving shoes onboard, Leora, Angela and Thomas descended cautiously into the water, but were comforted when realizing it was only ankle-deep and posed no risk from the hippos and crocodiles lurking in the deeper channel.
Here, in the middle of the Zambezi, a full bar and wonderful spread awaited, complete with freshly-baked bread, perhaps a little ominously crafted into the shape of a crocodile. Enjoy the repast with fellow guests, they toasted a wonderful conclusion to their Zambia adventure.
But one last game drive beckoned…
This Zambia safari had already been extraordinary in myriad ways. From wounded leopards to lunches with wetted toes in the Zambezi, a score of inimitable memories had been made, but more was yet to come.
Setting out as the sun descended, the final game drive took Leora, Angela and Thomas to an estuarine region where waterbuck were piqued from their grazing at the approaching vehicle and saddle-billed storks stood balletically on one leg. A rustling in a nearby tussock alerted the guide to another rarely seen creature.
Its serpentine tail swishing in the long grass, a monitor lizard was struggling with an oversized meal. The guide suggested that it had stolen – rather than caught – the large fish it was engorging, though its eyes were bigger than its stomach, and the group watched on, fascinated as it attempted, and eventually succeeded, to consume its large prey.
The rumor of lion ushered the group onwards, seeking out the largest of Africa’s big cats. They were found in a riverbed below the driving track and, though not the best vantage point, were wonderful to witness. But as they watched, the pride’s male ascended the bank and, searching for a cool breeze in the hot evening air, clumsily made his way up into the branches of a small nearby tree. While there are a handful of areas in Africa where tree-climbing lions are a fairly common sight, they are few and far between, and in the Lower Zambezi the sight is almost unheard of.
This was an exceptional farewell for the trio’s Zambia safari.
Sundowners were sipped, smiles and fond memories of the past two weeks were shared, and they returned to camp content at all they had experienced on their adventure.
Zambia has shared its sublime hospitality, its wealth of nature, its spectacular sunsets and its superb lodges and, if sourcing exceptional destinations to share with her clients was her primary objective, their mission had been well and truly accomplished.
Packing their bags for the last time, Leora and her companions contentedly enjoyed a light breakfast before their long journey home, the serene Zambezi unfolding in front of them, hippo wallowing and the sounds of the waking forest at their back. Embracing the genial staff with endless ‘thank you’s for their kindness and service, they boarded the launch, every step, every ripple of the river, taking them away from the wonderful country that had so deeply captivated and moved them for the previous 14 days.
As they cruised downstream towards the dirt runway that would serve as the first step back towards the real world, they recalled all the people they’d met, the nature they had seen, the exquisite properties they had visited and the wealth of once-in-a-lifetime moments they had accumulated on their magical Zambia adventure.