The wild side of Zambia

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by Isabel Conway –

“You are among the animals here, they’ll come and see you, they’re all around us” explains Suzyo Zimba, a man who knows what he’s talking about as one of the top guides in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.

Vast and sparsely populated, Zambia is one of Africa’s most unspoilt and peaceful countries full of tourism potential with extensive wildlife and pristine scenery, divided between 20 national parks and 34 game management areas. Louth Luangwa, Kafue and Lower Zambezi rank among the top game parks in the world.

I’ve barely had time to settle in at the lovely Mfuwe Lodge safari lodge, surrounded by a lagoon filled with hippos, when a pride of seven lions cross the lawns below the dining area. The lodge has become world famous for the family of elephants who embark on an annual peaceful invasion.

Mounting the steps of the reception area, they gently file past staff and guests on the same week every year when wild mangoes growing at the back of the lodge grounds are in their prime. The lodge, as you can imagine, is booked up solid for the extraordinary spectacle in which not even a chair is damaged. A minor act of elephant vandalism once involved an umbrella which a youngster nicked, played with, and reduced to pulp with its feet.

Mfuwe is reputedly one of Zambia’s best base camps for viewing wildlife. We pile aboard an open jeep for the evening game drive as dusk descends creating mysterious shadows after a spectacular sunset.

“We have a special relationship with our wild animals”, Suzyo says. There’s mutual respect, we give the animals their space so they never feel threatened; in return we’re allowed to come very close to them here”.

He’s right …that’s if you rule out our first sighting – the family of warthog nicknamed ‘the Kalahari Ferrari’ who on our approach zoom off tails antennae like erect. Then a massive giraffe ambled past, disappearing into the thick forest to find his companion.

As our powerful vehicle’s wheel descends into a deep crater, engine revving and gears screeching an angry bellowing erupts from behind the trees and a Bull Elephant emerges, anything but pleased to see us. Mighty ears flap furiously and he looks ready to charge. “No worries” soothes Suzyo “ we’ll just keep driving forwards and let him see there’s room for all of us around here. If we reverse back the vehicle might get waterlogged and he could decide to take advantage!” His bluff called the elephant duly lumbers off into the bush.

We search on for the elusive leopard whose numbers are healthy in South Luangwa but are often notoriously hard to see. Eyes peeled we are bounced up and down along a maze of tracks. Suddenly Suzyo whispers “hush”. A loud cracking noise and a terrifying deep snarling comes from the bushes ahead.

A large male lion with a blood stained mane is crunching through his dinner – a whole warthog (hopefully not one of those we saw earlier) that he tears at ferociously pulling meat from bone in big chunks.

From Mfuwe we moved on to more remote Kapamba deeper in the bush and also owned by The Bushcamp Company (www.bushcampcompany.com) whose six authentic camps includes stilted tree houses, thatched bungalows and tented compounds in wilderness locations.

Walking safaris are growing in popularity all the time and daring to step out from the safety of the jeep to go walkabout for a couple of hours is exciting and also unnerving, especially as we’re following the tracks of leopard, buffalo and elephant.

Christopher, an experienced national parks warden and scout is armed with a 458 rifle capable of killing a charging elephant at six metres. Some of us yearn to return home boasting about how close we’ve got on foot to a big cat or elephant others thank our lucky stars such encounters have been confined to the safari vehicle!

Zambia is most famous for being home of the legendary Victoria Falls that it shares with Zimbabwe one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a must see for everyone visiting this landlocked country.

The Falls were in their prime during my visit with a phenomenal 10 million cubic litres every second dropping to a depth of 103 metres along its almost 2 km long expanse between Zambia and Zimbabwe. They were framed by a perfect rainbow emerging from behind canopies of spray and mist rising from monstrous cascades.

Get there during the dry season and you can take a dip in ‘the Devil’s Toilet bowl’ and go white water rafting in rapids with names like ‘Terminator’ and ‘Judgement Day’. Bungee jumping and abseiling are among the other year round adrenaline rush offerings.

Only from the air can the true scale of Victoria Falls be fully appreciated, it’s said though I loved getting close up and personal with them on foot. The cheapest helicopter ride takes 15 minutes and costs €195 with Batoka Sky (www.livingstonesadventure.com)

Livingstone, Zambia’s most popular tourist centre is also the gateway to superb stretches of the upper Zambezi, I took myself off to two of its special lodges perched on the banks of Africa’s fourth largest river. Waterberry (www.waterberrylodge.com) long established and noted for comfort, friendliness and great food and luxurious Tongabezi (www.tongabezi)rated one of Africa’s top river lodges with sumptuous accommodation and a 5 star experience.

A stop off in Zambia’s capital Lusaka whose new state of the art airport terminal is nearly completion is the norm if you are arriving from outside Africa.

One of the African continent’s fastest growing cities Lusaka has no fewer than 20 shopping centres, enjoys frequent traffic gridlock and new developments are going up rapidly.

If you only enjoy one hotel experience in Lusaka let it be at the Raffles style Intercontinental in the diplomatic district (www.intercontinental.com )The place oozes Colonial charm harking back to times when going on safari was a tedious and even dangerous pursuit involving days of travel by road into the wilds with few if any creature comforts. Many a traveller let their hair down here before departure.

Isabel travelled to Lusaka via Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) Africa’s largest airline with the newest fleet. Daily flights ex London to Lusaka from €591 return economy. Ethiopian Airlines also operates direct routes via Addis Ababa to Victoria Falls.

For further information on Zambia see www.zambia.travel.com and www.zambiatourism.com and for internal flights see www.flyzambia

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