For magical landscapes and a fascinating safari adventure, Zambia has something for nature lovers wanting an unforgettable experience, says Amar Grover
Driving towards the banks of the Luangwa River, the track twisted and turned through groves of ebony trees. Abraham Banda, our guide, peered this way and that. “Sometimes you see elephants here…” he said, “but not today.”
Ordinarily, of course, we would have been delighted to see yet more of these magnificent animals. But we’d already been out all morning on a fantastic game drive. The midday sun was high, a time when most wildlife tends to retreat for the animal equivalent of a siesta. Right then we had a lodge to reach across the river, and a long-awaited lunch.
Say hello to the big chill
Our goal – and home for the next couple of nights – stands amidst a leafy glade on the far bank. Chinzombo, a luxury bush-camp, lies on the very edge of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
Regarded by cognoscenti as among Africa’s best wildlife parks, this is one of the region’s newest and coolest lodges. It’s the latest up-market offering from Norman Carr Safaris whose founder – the late Norman Carr – was something of an elder statesman in the African safari world.
Behind Chinzombo’s bar, black and white pictures of the hunter-turned-conservationist show him casually strolling or relaxing with his famed ‘pet’ lions. On the counter rests the huge bleached lower jaw of a hippo.
Off-setting this masculinity is an adjoining open-sided lounge with low-slung sofas and a small library, and informal dining area. Both lead onto a terrace with a fire-pit which faces the curving Luangwa. Inside Chinzombo’s six well-spaced villas (which also face the river) it’s hard to believe you’re in a remote part of Africa.
The spacious interiors – combining heavy duty canvas, traditional thatch and a stylish minimalism – faintly resemble an elaborate marquee but even ‘glamping’ doesn’t do them justice. Vast beds are screened with tent-sized mosquito nets (and, when needed, can be cooled with a clever ‘invisible’ air conditioner). Another room with a freestanding bathtub and twin sinks doubles as a dressing area.
Both sections and their roll-up walls extend into a gorgeous viewing terrace with a comfy sofa underneath a shaded porch. Beyond and out in the sun, you can choose between a charming plunge pool and a sunken lounge area with simple banquettes. There’s little else – not even a fence – between you and whatever wildlife may wander by below.
Rise and shine!
A typical safari day comprises early starts (around dawn) and a filling breakfast before the morning excursion, then returning for mid-morning snacks and several hours’ free time either side of a buffet lunch. Midafternoon tea and cake sets you up nicely for another few hours exploring the bush, all chased with sundowners to wrap up the afternoon.
Award-winning expert guides like Abraham can show you things, even when on the face of it there’s little to see. Within minutes of setting off one afternoon he’d spotted recent lion and leopard prints on the dusty track, and ardvaark holes amidst the grass.
Pods of wallowing hippos snorted amusingly by the river and in small ox-bow lakes, their almost comical yawns obscured the fact these are Africa’s most dangerous animals.
We continued past sausage trees (so-called because of their elongated dangling seed pods) where a Martial eagle – Africa’s largest – gazed out from a shady perch. Kudus, a type of antelope, grazed contentedly and in the muddy fringes of a waterhole motionless crocodiles basked. Then, just as Abraham was explaining how sometimes keeping one’s distance can lead to better, closer encounters, a small herd of elephants appeared.
Luangwa is one of Africa’s few parks which permits nocturnal drives. So after sundowners and nuts, our guard manned the spotlight and we headed off again, the powerful lamp casting long, eerie shadows in the evening darkness. Suddenly a beautiful leopard prowled barely 20 feet away. Unbothered by our arrival, she was busy hunting impala and cleverly using dips in the terrain to stalk her prey.
Leopards – notoriously elusive – are among this park’s main attractions and it boasts a particularly good record of sightings. Despite the clear tracks, distant roars and growls, we were not able to see Luangwa’s many lions partly because the grass was still fairly high and thick. Back at Chinzombo, after dinner we sprawled on cushions beside the fire pit as dancing flames warded off the night-time chill.
A full moon appeared behind fluffy clouds, its brilliance reflected in the river. Even when a loud honking hippo rather broke the spell, we agreed there’s nothing quite like a bit of animal magic.
Want to book it?
Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, coxandkings.co.uk) offers a 10-day trip to Zambia from £5,355 per person. This includes international and domestic flights from London Heathrow, one night at Lilayi Lodge in Lusaka with breakfast and two nights full board in each of Chinzombo, Nsolo and Luwi bush camps with twice-daily game-viewing activities.