The key to a good safari is undoubtedly the quality of the guiding and how guests are hosted during their stay. Having travelled to Kenya and Botswana on previous trips I had experienced two of the best safari destinations that Africa has to offer. I’d heard that Zambia offered a more grass roots safari and was therefore eager to find out how it looked after those in search of a great wildlife experience.
Arriving in the Lower Zambezi off the back of a connecting flight from Lusaka and an overnight flight from London never puts you in the best frame of mind for starting a safari. What helps is the warm reception of a confident host and at Chiawa Camp this came in the form of Grant and Lindsay Cummings. Grant set up Chiawa, the first camp to be located in the Lower Zambezi National Park, in 1989 and as a founding member of Conservation Lower Zambezi he has taken the camp and the park from strength to the strength. His passion for the bush is evident from the moment you meet him. He encourages you to do every activity on offer to see how far the park has developed and this is before you’ve even been shown your tent. Grant’s enthusiasm passes through to the rest of his team and our guide Joe was testament to this. On our first night drive with him we were lucky enough to come across a leopard stalking some impala. We carefully followed the leopard, making sure we did not impede its hunt. As we followed Joe gave us a commentary on its hunting habits; how it stalks, how often it eats and all this whilst driving through thick woodland….. without any headlights on! The leopard’s hunt was unsuccessful on this occasion, but that didn’t matter as we had learnt so much. It is always going to be tough to follow up such a wonderful encounter. Joe did it confidently though, not by tearing round the park trying to find us something more exciting, but simply by finding us a clearing, switching off the engine and giving us a commentary on the huge starscape above our heads. Of course if an aardvark had walked by I would have named him ‘Superguide’, but that would have taken a whole lot of luck.
From the Lower Zambezi my trip took me north east to both North and South Luangwa. Our accommodation in North Luangwa was at Kutandala, a simple reed and thatch camp beside the Mwaleshi River. This is home to Rod and Gus Tether. Not only do they run and manage the camp, but they are also raising their two young sons out in the bush, no mean feat. The emphasis at Kutandala is on walking and Rod is one of the best guides that Zambia has to offer. Tracking lions on foot is one of the options, but the lions were not close by so we took a more scenic and refreshing day’s walk to the Mwaleshi Falls. On the way Rod pointed out and identified numerous birds and animals and diverted the walk to view a large pod of hippo wallowing in the river, a spectacular sight close up. When we arrived at the falls, Rod’s eyes lit up and it was almost as if he was sharing one of his favourite toys with us. Lazing in the afternoon sun after a great barbeque it was going to be difficult to muster the energy for a swim in the rock pools let alone the walk home.
Not to be outdone by Rod’s barbequing skills, Gus produces what can only be described as miracle food out of her simple bush kitchen. Kutandala, like many other camps has its own salad and vegetable garden on site so tasty, fresh produce is always at hand. However when Gus produced a homemade sorbet and brandy snaps for pudding at lunch followed by homemade ice cream in an ice bowl later that evening, I was truly amazed. I would challenge any London chef to produce such high quality food with such limited resources in such a remote location. Food is an important part of safari life and Gus’s was the best I experienced in Zambia.
Robin Pope Safaris is one of the most successful operations in South Luangwa and Nsefu Camp located on the eastern banks of the Luangwa River is in the heart of an abundant game area. Of course the wildlife has to be there, but a good guide will be able to find it and talk about it with confidence. Our guide at Nsefu was Kerry. This was the first female guide I’d seen since I was piloted and guided by a four foot ten bush lady in Zimbabwe. She had proved herself to be a superb guide so I eagerly anticipated seeing what Kerry could show us on our night drive. I’d heard that she was good on birds so I decided to put her to the test. “How about seeing if we can find some owls?” I asked as we set off. Within 10 minutes Kerry had found us an owl. “Where?” We all said, scanning the trees for a large, fluffy bird. “In that bush over there”, indicated Kerry, pointing to a bush some two hundred metres from the track. With the help of a large pair of binoculars I found our owl, a pearl-spotted owl, about the size of a dove. An impressive spot! Later on in the drive, after the sun had gone down we came across a pair of porcupines, dimly lit in the moonlight. We watched them with the aid of the spotters lamp for a while before I asked if we could get any closer. Unperturbed, by the steep bank that we and the land cruiser we going to have to tackle, Kerry set off giving a perfect demonstration of four by four driving. As we got closer Kerry turned the headlights off. “I’m still learning,” she said. “Just last week I discovered that if you turn the headlights off you can get within 20 metres of the porcupines.” As a result we got a really close up sighting of these unusual animals.
Our last destinations were Kafue National Park and the Busanga Plains, about an hour’s flying time, west of Lusaka. Busanga is the only place in Zambia where cheetahs are sighted on a regular basis. The wide open plains that flood after the December rains offer the perfect habitat during the dry months for these sleek cats, but seeking them out in the long grass takes the skill of a good guide. This time it was Lexon, who having grown up in the area knows Busanaga like the back of his hand, and together with Benson, his eagle eyed spotter, made sure that we got to see the cheetahs.
When it comes to tracking cheetahs, a guide living in camp has an obvious advantage over the average guest who spends only perhaps three or four days there. A guide will know the animals’ territory and when they were last spotted, though, of course, he does still have to find them. I was in camp at Busanga for only 16 hours, but Lexon and Benson eagerly took up the challenge. Sure enough, within an hour of arriving in camp, we found five cheetahs (a mother and her four one year old cubs) bathing in the soft rays of the setting sun. A good guide thinks long term and by giving the mother and her cubs distance in their early stages he had earned their trust. The result was five cheetah approaching the Land Rover for some of the best photo opportunities I’ve ever had.
I returned from Zambia wholly impressed by the quality of guiding and hosting. I had found that a similar standard was apparent in all of the camps that I visited. I’ve recently travelled to Botswana, certainly the most upmarket of all the safari destinations, and to Kenya visiting some of the most pioneering and conservation-minded ranches in Africa. While Zambia can’t quite match the sheer glassy waters of the Okavango Delta or the density of game of some of Kenya’s finest reserves, for me it offers a unique experience of Africa. The accommodation is comfortable without being overwhelming, the hosting is excellent and the guiding can only be described as brilliant. In Zambia natural Africa is allowed to take its place centre stage.