Any trip that starts with an elephant sauntering past the front door of your African lodge promises to be good. And it was.
“A couple of weeks ago, we had an elephant up on the deck drinking from the plunge pool,” said one of the staff at Robin Pope Safaris’ Luangwa Safari House. “He was very careful not to step on the cushions.”
So, Zambia is where you go in Africa for a more intimate view of nature: to see the animals one on one and up close rather than in large herds.
In Your Bucket Because ….
- You want to see a less crowded, less visited Africa.
- You like to see and/or photograph animals in the wild.
- You like to meet people from different cultures.
- Good for: People willing to travel far for something unique.
That evening, we were supposed to celebrate the end of the day with drinks in a ritual known across Africa as a sundowner. But the animals had other plans.
“Um, you want to see a couple of leopards eating an impala in a tree?” asked our guide Jacob.
Okay, it’s not exactly a Disney moment but it is life and death in the bush. And we were there, watching, as a female leopard gnawed on the deer-like impala while hyenas waited below.
All of this took place in and near the 3,500 square mile South Luangwa National Park in central Zambia. This place really is a garden of Eden, with elephants, baboons, giraffes, birds of all kinds, and more rhinos than anywhere else in southern Africa. I lost count at 100.
The next day, we went to the village of Kwaza. Robin Pope Safaris arranges stays, which run $70 a night and include lodging and food. Our huts were small, with mud walls, pounded dirt floors, thatched roofs and comfy foam mattresses on cots. You can do a day or several and you can help with the daily chores such as carrying firewood, planting, and cooking dinner.
Or making moonshine, should you wish.
The liquor still is amazing: a hand made clay pot to make the steam, a cut-down bike tire with a pipe to siphon off the condensing liquid and an old bottle to catch the final product. I’ve had moonshine that would peel paint off metal. This stuff smelled a bit grassy but was sweet and went down smooth.
Of course we bought a bottle for that night’s celebration.
Party in the African Bush
The high point of our village visit: first, tribal dances. But then the “jazz band” showed up with home made instruments that included a huge drum attached to an oversized finger board and this — thing — made out of a bicycle rim and bits of metal on strings.
Everybody got into the act, one little girl bouncing and vibrating so fast, we could hardly see her hips. It went on like this — jumping, singing, drumming, bouncing — well into the night. This was village life for real. No kids with their hands out, no men pressuring you to buy carvings. Just local folk doing their daily thing.
Next, it was off to the walking safari at Norman Carr Safaris Kakuli Bush Camp.
Norman Carr originally was an elephant control officer and learned to love walks in the bush. Before the 1950s, it was thought you had to be in a vehicle to be safe, but Carr wanted to share the wonder of walking and worked out how to do it safely. We went out with a guide to explain things and a scout who carried the gun. A very big gun with very, very big bullets.
It’s different when you are on foot. The animals let you get closer. We practically strolled into a group of zebras. Elephants just went on drinking. Impalas shone like gold against the shimmering sand of the dried up Luwi River.
But in the end, along with the animals, it was the people who made this special.
We were winding up our stay at the Normal Carr bush camp when the plastic strap on my watch split. I asked our guide for some tape and he disappeared for an hour. When he returned, I realized he had sewn the plastic band with tiny surgical stitches.
There is no way I’m replacing the band. It will be my very constant, very sweet reminder of my trip to Zambia.
- One wonders about the folks who came up with herd names for animals. According to Beat about the Bush: Mammals by Trevor Carnaby, it’s a “journey” of giraffes and a “dazzle” of zebras. But you also get a “mischief” (honest) of baboons, a “whoop” of gorillas, a “crush” of rhinos and, of course, a “leap” of leopards.
- If you think lions are the most dangerous animals in Africa you’re wrong. It’s actually hippos that kill more people than any other mammal. They are grouchy, nearsighted and highly territorial.
- For a natural compass in Zambia, look at a tree where buffalo weaver birds have built nests. They cluster on the west side for warmth.
- On the matter of serious survival, if you are totally out of water and you need some REAL bad, you can squeeze the liquid out of fresh elephant dung, filter it through your T-shirt and drink up. Those who know say it tastes like muddy wheat grass juice. Yum.
- Zambian farmers use impalas (deer-like animals) to forecast weather. If the impalas get pregnant and all goes well, the rains will come. In the 15 years that this has been studied, the Zambian meteorological department has been badly wrong twice and the impalas have been dead on every time.
- May through July is dry and cooler. August through November is dry and hot. December through April is wet. Game viewing is better in the late dry season since animals come to the limited number of water holes. But bird watching is better during the rainy season, plus the land turns green and beautiful. For Victoria Falls, you want July through September. The rest of the year, it’s either too dry or too wet.
- Visits to Devil’s Pool are arranged through Tongabezi Lodge.
- Lodges: Robin Pope Safaris, Norman Carr Safaris, Tongabezi Lodge, Stanley Safaris.
- General information: Zambia Tourism, Zambia National Parks
- South African Airways (www. www.flysaa.com) flies from New York (JFK) and Washington (Dulles) to Johannesburg in South Africa, after which you transfer to SAA’s flights for Zambia. SAA has a code share arrangement with Jet Blue (www.jetblue.com) and United (www.united.com) to book flights and transfer bags.