Zambia, a Confirmed Zealot

During my time managing safari camps in Botswana in the 1980s, I never did get the opportunity to go further north and into Zambia. So with great enthusiasm I left an overheated UK in July bound for the Luangwa Valley. A fan of simple bushcamps, this educational trip had almost been tailor made. It included time with the Bush Camp Company, Robin Pope Safaris, a stay at Shiwa N’gandu and Kutandala in the North Luangwa National Park. Best of all, walking was high on the agenda.

The drive from Mfuwe airport, heading for the South Luangwa National Park immediately revived my African senses. It’s a great introduction to real African life as you pass the rural settlements strung out along the route, the array of shops and bars, and subsistence gardens filled with mango, maize and other essential crops. So many people walking or cycling along the road with large bundles on their backs or strapped to their bicycles, all heading home and I felt really at home. It made me realise that any newcomer to Africa should try to travel by road at some point during their stay, just to see a little of the real

My excitement set in as we drove over the Luangwa River and entered the South Luangwa National Park. The sound of hippos and the cry of the fish eagle filled the air. With Andy Hogg, owner of the Bushcamp Company, we headed south to Chindeni Camp. A beautifully simple tented bushcamp, it blends perfectly with the surroundings. The tents are on raised platforms and there are all the comforts you could need. We ate supper overlooking the darkened lagoon with the customary bell frogs chinking in the background.

That night the cacophony of lions calling was deafening and at breakfast we could see some rather strange looking lions at the end of the lagoon. Later on foot we came across them. With a buffalo kill in two feet of water, they were totally covered in mud and still chewing on the carcass. It was a great start to our walk from Chindeni to Chamilandu Camp, some three to four hours away. Walking here is encouraged, not only between camps but at any time and after two days mainly on foot, it was with some reluctance that I hopped back into a vehicle.

Part of the beauty of the camps in the South Luangwa and in Zambia as whole, is that many are owner run. Robin Pope Safaris, Norman Carr Safaris and the Bushcamp Company are all excellent examples of this, the camps are small and unpretentious and the quality of guiding is supreme. Due to the nature of the soil here, which is heavy black cotton, many of the areas cannot be traversed for more that six or seven months of the year. This means that the game is not over habituated to people and the staff not over jaded. The South Luangwa for me was a piece of magic.

For anyone who has read and been intrigued by the book “The Africa House” by Christina Lamb, the reality of seeing the house itself, known as Shiwa N’Gandu, is just so much better. Built in the early part of the 20th century by an Englishman Stewart Gore-Browne, it is an interesting architectural mix of English stately home and Tuscan villa. After several years of neglect, it is now being run and restored by Charlie Harvey and his wife Jo. Charlie is one of Stewart Gore-Browne’s grandchildren. The Harveys are great company, they are most hospitable, very knowledgeable and due to their combined hard work, this extraordinary place is once again supporting a growing local population. The once abandoned farm is now productive, the hospital is undergoing renovation and the schools are again full. Gore-Browne’s legacy lives on and with the lake for fishing and boat trips, horses, great birding walks and a mass of historical documents and photographs to browse through. A visit here is a must.

From here we drove south to the North Luangwa National Park, which is rising from the ashes after many years of severe poaching. Support from the Frankfurt Zoological society has meant that the National Parks teams are back and recently the first consignment of black rhino were flown in and released into a vast boma. The dense miombo woodland at the top of the escarpment gives way to fantastic views over miles and miles of remote bush and the last few metres of our journey to Kutandala Camp were on foot, wading through the shallow waters of the Mwaleshi river. The camp is an absolute gem. It takes only six guests and feels and is, extremely remote. The grass, reed and thatch cottages are newly built each year and the attention to detail is faultless. Rod Tether guides with a gentle manner and great knowledge and his wife Gus provides some of the best food I have ever eaten on safari. It’s all walking, and on our final evening we found eight lions lying up with a backdrop of three hundred buffalo. I simply could have stayed here for days.

Zambia reminded me so much of the Botswana I had known fifteen years ago. Where the bush, its sights and sounds are what really matter. You come away feeling you have felt it, smelt it and learned a great deal more about it. It certainly makes me smile waking up in a reed and thatch cottage and watching the sun rise.