From escaping ravenous lion prides to being charged by African elephants and encountering packs of wild dogs, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY live on the wild side in Zambia
We were barely meters away from a pair of mating lions in an open safari vehicle, the tyres were horribly stuck in mud and daylight was fading faster than our false bravado. The more our Zambian driver-and-guide Powell Nchimunya revved the jeep, the deeper it sank. The cloud of grey fumes we blew towards the lions wasn’t exactly the post-coital smoke they would have enjoyed, so we begged Powell to ease off.
“During mating, lions prefer to stay in one area and they’re at it 60-70 times in the space of 2-3 days”, we were informed. “Just once makes people so ravenous,” we chuckled. And here was a lovely international spread for the lions’ delight if they so chose. “English, Swiss, French, Indian, what would you like to have tonight dear?”, we joked. (Nervous laughter)
It was a strange predicament, thanks to unseasonal heavy rains, which had made the loop roads and tracks of Kafue National Park slushy. There was nothing we could do but radio for help and wait for the second safari vehicle from Mukambi Safari Lodge trailing behind to pull us out. “Shall we have the sundowners now?” Powell tried to sound cheerful. Considering our situation, it wasn’t a bad idea.
Out came sausage rolls and white wine. He carefully kept one spotlight trained on the tawny mane in the bush. “Ummm…. Can’t spot the lioness,” we observed warily. “Actually there were two lionesses…’ Powell corrected. “I don’t see the other one either!” We nearly choked on our wine, imagining two hungry lionesses slowly stalking us in darkness.
This wild tract was once inhabited by the ferocious Ila tribe, who wore elaborate tasseled headdresses with kudu bone woven into their hair to follow each other in the tall grass. Finding plenty of fish in the river, they were always well fed. It was a cruel twist of irony that ‘Kafue’ literally meant ‘belly full’. Just when we thought we’d be part of the ‘lion’s share,’ we spotted a pair of headlights in the distance. Our joy was shortlived. The second vehicle that swooped to our rescue was stranded deeper in the slush! The leonine buffet spread was getting larger.
The spotlight was frozen on a pair of eyes shining like stars in the bush, in anticipation for any move. Minutes felt like hours as we radioed for help. Finally, a tractor from Ila Safari Lodge nearby towed us out. “Ah don’t worry, it’s quite common to get stuck when it rains.” Getting back on the gravel path, we hazarded a closer look at the mating lions, before returning to the safety of our lodge. Or so we thought…
In the wilds of Kafue, it is not uncommon for stray wildlife to walk through resorts. Mukambi Safari Lodge, located on the banks of the Kafue river and named after the mukambi (water buck) has a clear policy on guests being accompanied to their rooms at night with a minder. “Once after dropping a guest, I saw an entire pride of lions walk by,” said my night guide.
Robyn van der Heide, who runs the place with husband Edjan and her daughters, fondly remembers Basil the semi-resident hippo who used the resort as his hangout for 14 years, often plopping himself at the reception. We locked our rondavels (traditional circular African dwelling with conical thatched roof); thankfully the night was uneventful.
The next day, we took a boat across the river and set off on our safari. Kafue is the biggest and oldest national park in Zambia and the second largest in all of Africa. At 22,480 sq km, it is roughly the size of Wales. We were mock charged twice by African elephants and sneakily drove past some male Cape buffalos, called ‘widow makers,’ due to their aggressive nature. These lone stragglers inhabit slushy mud pools and cake themselves with mud, hence the nickname ‘dagga boys’ – after construction workers who have dried cement on them due to mixing dagga or sand, cement and water.
Kafue boasts the highest population of wild dogs in Africa and the greatest diversity of antelope in the world – semi-endemic puku, the endemic Kafue lechwe, sable, kudu, waterbuck, impala and many more. Guides jokingly call impala ‘McDonald’s’ after the M-shaped mark on their rump – “it’s fast food for predators”. Statistics reveal that it takes an average of 18 game drives to spot wild dogs; we were indeed lucky to see a pack of over a dozen Cape Wild Dogs on our second safari. First, tearing into a carcass and later crossing the main road.
Nearly 500 of Zambia’s 750 odd bird species can be spotted at Kafue. The metallic glossy blue of the Greater Blue-eared Starling, the brilliance of the Malachite kingfisher, Namaqua doves flying off from their perch as we approached, gigantic Ground Hornbills preening furiously, Red-naped spurfowls calling out in warning on spotting the Western Banded Snake Eagle, the Grey Crowned Crane bobbing its head in the reeds like a powder puff flower; every moment in the bush was a head turner.
Zambia’s national bird the African fish eagle surveyed the stream. Hadada Ibis, named after their distinct ‘hadada’ call while in flight, were silhouetted on a tree. The Grey Go-away Bird, with its peculiar call that sounds like ‘go away,’ infamously featured in the film ‘Gods Must Be Crazy’. Technically a species of turaco, royalty and chiefs all over Africa have treasured its crimson flight feathers as status symbols. The hammerkopf with its hammer-shaped head kept flitting about ahead like an usher.
Spotting a herd of Boehm’s zebra in the distance, we decided to stop for a coffee break. Only when we stood still did we notice the smaller creatures, like the pesky tsetse flies. “We burn elephant dung in a can at the back of the vehicle to ward them off,” said Powell. Though prevalent in Kafue, tsetse flies provided a natural barrier against encroachment in the park.
A train of Matabele ants scurried about busily. Named after the fierce Matabele tribe in Zimbabwe who raided other tribes in the 1800s, the ants raid termite mounds to grab eggs and hatchlings. Worker ants set out as scouts and leave a scented trail of pheromones for the whole colony to follow.
Kafue does not have many lodges, which means you don’t encounter too many vehicles while on safari. The landing strip at Chunga is open for chartered flights all year round. Between our game drives, we dropped by at Ila Safari Lodge, run by Jacques and Linda van Heerden. They are the proud owners of Zambia’s first eLandy or Electronic Landrover.
The eco-friendly resort has absolutely no limitations while staying in the bush – a solar panel electric boat, luxury tents with a wooden deck and outdoor showers equipped with solar geysers. Their 3-day packages include pick up/drop from Lusaka, full day game drives with lunch in the bush, dining on the boat, fishing trips and seamless inter camp transfers.
Undoubtedly, the best place to spot large herds of herbivores and their predators are the Zambezian flooded grasslands in the north – the Busanga Swamp and plains. A 6 hr drive away, this absolutely prime tract is the undoubted Jewel of Zambia. “It’s like Masai Mara without all the people. So wild, you are on your own,” said Linda.
We took the Great West Road straight as an arrow back to Lusaka. At Southern Sun Ridgeway, it was with a twinge of guilt we tried Zambian game meat like kudu, croc and impala. Musuku restaurant overlooked a pond-courtyard where resident weavers nested in the reeds and baby crocodiles sunned themselves on the central islet.
For a closer brush with wildlife, opportunities are immense. Set in Lilayi Lodge’s 650-hectare game farm on the outskirts of Lusaka is Lilayi Elephant Nursery, an elephant orphanage where abandoned calves are nursed before being rehabilitated to Kafue Release Facility. At 11.30am every day, project staff give a brief talk about the project, explaining elephant behaviour and usher visitors to the viewing deck which provides the perfect vantage point to watch baby elephants feed and play.
Chaminuka, literally ‘village on a hill’ is 10,000 acres of pristine Miombo woodland and savanna overlooking Lake Chitoka, beyond Lusaka Airport. The home of Andrew and Danae Sardanis since 1978, it houses a huge private collection of contemporary African paintings, sculpture, masks and traditional artefacts – over a thousand pieces acquired from all around Africa over 50 years! Besides a tour of the Chaminuka Art Collection and game drives, you can pet cheetahs and enjoy wine and cheese tastings.
The Kafue and the Luangwa are the two largest left-hand tributaries of the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa. South Luangwa National Park stretches around the Luangwa River and its oxbow lagoons possess excellent concentration of animals with great leopard sightings. The famous ‘walking safari’ originated here. The Lower Zambezi National Park promises canoeing trips down the Zambezi river – though you must watch out for hippos that sometimes topple boats! At Kenneth Kaunda airport in Lusaka, we marveled at Coert Steynberg’s bronze antelope sculpture ‘Lechwe of the Kafue Flats’, before boarding our Mahogany Air flight to Livingstone.
One place where the roar of the lion is drowned out by the roar of nature’s spectacle is Victoria Falls. Counted among the seven natural wonders of the world and the only one in Africa, it’s a dramatic 1,708 m wide and 108 m drop of the Zambezi river. If Vasco da Gama was the first European to come across the Zambezi river in January 1498 (at a point he called ‘Rio dos Bons Sinais’ or River of Good Omens), centuries later explorer David Livingstone was the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (literally, the smoke that thunders) waterfall in 1855. He called it Victoria Falls after the Queen. On his 1852-56 exploration of the African interior he mapped out almost the entire course of the river.
Mosi-oa-Tunya is also a National Park with a decent population of antelope, elephants, giraffe and rhino, but thankfully no predators. Our resort Avani Victoria Falls Resort was a mere 5-minute walk from the cataract whose deafening roar hummed through the forest. Located within a nature reserve, Avani allows unlimited access to the waterfall and chance encounters with wildlife. We saw zebras grazing in the lawns and giraffes nibbling leaves off the trees! After devouring a mixed meat Zambezi Platter, we were off to Mukuni Big 5 to experience elephant feeding, a walk with cheetahs and petting lions.
From the plush David Livingstone Safari Lodge we embarked on a magical river cruise on the Zambezi aboard the Lady Livingstone. Sipping sundowners with a band playing on the silimba (Zambian xylophone using resonating gourds), we trained our binocs to the riverbank to spot wildlife. In the distance, the misty spray of the gushing waterfall rose like a wraith… David Livingstone’s words rang true, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
Fly to Lusaka on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Lilayi and Chaminuka are on the outskirts of Lusaka, 45 min drive away. From Lusaka, Lower Zambezi National Park is 153km/2 hr 45 min drive while Kafue is 260km/4 hr drive via the M9. Mahagony Air flies to Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone and Proflight to Mfuwe, the nearest airport to South Luangwa.
Mahogany Air Ph +26 097 786 5838 www.mahoganyair.com
Proflight Zambia Ph +260 (0) 211 252452/476 https://proflight-zambia.com
When to Go
The low season is from December to April, the wet months, when the grass is high and visibility is less. The dry season lasts from May to October when animals congregate around the river. Peak season rates apply from from July to Oct. Walking safaris start in August when the grass is short.
Tsetse flies are attracted to dark objects so wear light colours and avoid blue and black while in the jungle.
Where to Stay
Mukambi Safari Lodge
Ph +260 (0)97 44 24 013
Tariff $395/person, all-inclusive
(Peak season July-Oct $480)
Ila Safari Lodge
Ph +260 978 294 956, 976 366 054
Tariff $375/person low season
High season July-Nov$675
Avani Victoria Falls Resort
Ph +260 978 777044
Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara
Ph +260 21 332 1122
Tariff $414 upwards
Aha The David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa
Ph +260 21 332 4601
Southern Sun Ridgeway
Ph +260 211 251 666
The Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel
Ph +260 21 1239666
Protea Hotels by Marriott
Ph +260 21 1254664
Ph +260 211 254146, 840884
Mukuni Big 5, Livingstone
Ph +260 213 322286
For more info, visit http://www.zambia.travel
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the August 2018 issue of Travel + Leisure India magazine.