The Lower Zambezi valley, with its majestic escarpment sloping down to meet the river, protects a 4,092 km² National Park. The park lies on the northern banks of the Zambezi River in south-eastern Zambia. The escarpment along the north acts as a physical barrier with the bulk of the park being hilly ground, resulting in most of the game being concentrated on the flat valley floor, beside the deep, wide river.
A relatively undeveloped park, the beauty of the Lower Zambezi lies in its wildness. The diversity of animals is not as wide as some parks, but here there are endless opportunities to get right up close to the wildlife. The Park lies opposite the famous Mana Pools Reserve in Zimbabwe, so both sides of the river form a huge wildlife sanctuary. Until 1983, when it was declared a national park, the area was the private game reserve of Zambia’s president; as a result, was protected from the ravages of mass tourism, leaving it a relatively pristine wilderness.
Most visitors arrive by boat or light aircraft. Tourist numbers are limited by the park’s relative inaccessibility, and unless you have some pretty good off-road driving experience and come at the right time of year, it is not advisable to attempt a road trip. We had felt a bit of an adventure was in order and so had decided to drive…
Five hours from Lusaka, three of which were spent on dirt, we reached Baines River Camp. A slight ‘issue’ with dirty fuel and a clogged fuel filter, had slowed us down just long enough for me to, single-handedly, eat nearly all the ‘snacks’ I had packed for our road trip… something I was to regret when we arrived at camp and were greeted with a bountiful, delicious lunch!
Baines River Camp is located just upstream of the park boundary, inside the GMA, with spectacular views over the Zambezi. Named for Thomas Baines, a famous 19th-century artist and explorer, the small and intimate lodge really capture the feel of a bygone era with its classic colonial-style buildings and casual elegance.
Straight after lunch, we were off onto the river. It was wonderful to be back with all the sights, sounds and smells of the bush around us. Our boat ride took us downstream into the National Park, past elephants with babies and pods of hippos, to where our canoes were ready and waiting on the river bank. Leaving the main river, we headed off down a channel fringed with overhanging Jackalberry and Natal mahogany trees. We would re-join the main river in 7km. This was some of the easiest canoeing I’ve ever done. I had paddled for all of five minutes when our guide, Luke, informed me that I could put down my paddle, as he would steer and the current would carry us through the channel…so much for getting in any exercise to burn off all those ‘car snacks’ and enormous lunch! We spent a tranquil afternoon drifting downriver, past banks teaming with birdlife. Stopping briefly on an island for a drink to watch the sunset on our first evening in this beautiful park.
Just as the sun was going down, we heard the hum of an aeroplane approaching and were perfectly positioned to see the regular patrol flight of the Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) plane passing directly over our heads. The park is home to lion, hippo and wild dog, who are all listed as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘endangered’ under the IUCN Red List of threatened species and are endangered by poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife products. To counteract this, CLZ, a non-profit NGO, was set up in 1994 to work to preserve the wildlife in the National Park and GMA (a total area of approximately 9,000 km2). CLZ provide technical advice and support to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), runs an environmental education programme targeting over 2,500 young scholars a year, and runs a Community Support Programme focusing on human-wildlife-conflict mitigation in the neighbouring GMA. After 20 years of working with local wildlife authorities in the Lower Zambezi valley, CLZ is now one of the oldest, most well-established and well-recognized conservation organisations in Zambia.
In the morning we awoke to a river as smooth and shimmering as shot silk, stretching out in front of us, across to the opposite bank. The air was crisp as we set off in the boat, rugged up in blankets, mist rising off the water. 20 minutes and 30 km later we reached the park boundary, stopping briefly while our driver went to sort out entry formalities. A little while later we disembarked from the boat, into our waiting vehicle, setting off for an early morning game drive.
Within minutes we heard the roar of a lion and saw its footprints on the sandy road. Around the band we heard baboons raising an alarm call, warning the rest of the troop of a leopard in the thicket. Carrying on we found, in quick succession, the spoor of hyena and then wild dog… we knew we were really back in the bush.
A myriad of birds surrounded us; 378 species have been recorded in the park. Red-billed and Yellow-billed Hornbills swooped through the trees like clowns with their oversized beaks, Black Crakes flitted on the river bank, a Woolly-necked stork preened itself in the shallows, and one of my personal favourites, the Ground Hornbills strode across the landscape like they were heading to an important meeting. Luke pointed out what was new to me, but apparently not uncommon locally, a pair of Collard Palm-Thrushes.
Rounding the band in a dry river bed we stumbled upon a lioness sleeping in the deep wheel ruts left behind in the sand by previous vehicles. The guides knew her and said she had two young cubs that she must have hidden out of sight nearby. We watched and waited for some time, but aside from some tiny lion footprints in the sand, we didn’t see a trace of the babies. Clearly, they were obeying mum’s orders to stay out of sight.
Spotting some vultures swirling high in the sky, we headed in their direction. Eventually reaching the spot they seemed to be concentrating on. The trees were weighed down by Lappet-faced and White Backed Vultures, but we could find no trace of any fresh kill. We did however find the ‘ripe’ smelling, month old carcass of an elephant, rather curiously alongside an equally desiccated crocodile carcass. Luke filled us in on the story. Apparently, a month earlier, the elephant had died of natural causes, the crocodile, attracted by the promise of a feed, had walked from the river to feast on the elephant meat, only to meet his own fate in the jaws of a leopard.
The rest of our morning was a journey through the picturesque riverine landscape of ebonies, leadwood, acacias and fig trees, past Natal Mahoganies, Ilala Palms, Winterthorns and battle scared Baobabs, till reaching an oxbow lake, luminously green with water hyacinth, we stopped for a bush breakfast. We were watched by a pod of bobbing hippos and we, in turn, watched a loan, old buffalo chomping his way morosely through mouthfuls of the unappetising water hyacinth.
Leaving Baines River Camp we headed off to the Lower Zambezi National Park. Reaching the park gate we had paid our entry fees, filled out all the necessary paperwork and set off into the unknown – no maps, no signposts and, frankly, no real clue where we were heading! All we knew was that we had a 50 or 60km drive ahead. We didn’t see another person or vehicle on our drive, but three hours later, after a couple of mildly nerve-wracking, wide stream crossings, we arrived at Anabezi Luxury Tented Camp. Located in the remote and beautiful eastern end of the National Park, Anabezi has been built where the Zambezi River and the Mushika Flood Plain meet. I could see why, in the days of the British Colony, the area had been chosen to build the Governor’s personal retreat; we would see the ruins of the now derelict building, while out on one of our game drives. The camp is perched on the top of the riverbank, built on raised timber decks with wooden walkways and the Zambezi escarpment forming a beautiful backdrop.
As soon as you arrive at Anabezi you feel the atmosphere of understated luxury. We arrived in time for lunch and a ‘power nap’, before heading out on a game drive. Sometimes on safari, it is easy to forget about the ‘little things’, but on our drive that night, after we’d seen herds of waterbucks and impalas, and some really special sightings of lions, Prisley, our guide, switched off the engine and the lights and we sat in the dark revelling in sounds of the night. The air pulsated with crickets chorusing, baboons moaned and complained as they settled down for the night, hippos grunted in the distance… this was the true essence of the bush.
It wasn’t only out on drives that we were surrounded by wildlife. All around us in the camp were animals. A pair of mating lions had set up their ‘honeymoon suite’ no more than 60m from our room (and remained ‘honeymooning’ every twenty minutes, for the next three days). Elephants wandered just below the verandah at lunchtime. More elephants tore branches off trees behind us in the dark, while we ate our dinner. Hippos had late night pool parties in the channel below our room. Lions roared throughout the night. Squirrels raced up and down the walkways, almost underfoot. Under the walkway, a family of warthogs was permanently occupied digging up the grass.
Not far from camp was a beautiful Winterthorn forest, where we spent a wonderful morning, accompanied by families of waterbuck, herds of impala and an impressive selection of birdlife. Returning to camp after our walk, we had a spectacular sighting of a leopard high in a tree. So close that we could even see two puncture wounds in her shoulder; wounds that could well have been fatal if they’d been a few inches to right. Eventually, the leopard, bored by our presence, stretched, yawned and climbed down from the tree, sauntering off. Continuing to camp we found a male lion lying calmly and conspicuously by the side of the road. After allowing us a lengthy and leisurely look, he simply got up, moved off to the shade and disappearing as he lay down again in the long grass.
Waking from an afternoon nap, I watched from our tent as an elephant pushed his forehead against the trunk of the Winterthorn tree, persistently shaking the tree to dislodge its seedpods. Once no more seedpods fell, he delicately collected this bounty, one pod at a time, with the tip of his trunk and transferring them to his mouth, appeared mesmerised as he munched. Watching him eat reminded me that it was time for yet another of the camp’s delicious meals… this time afternoon tea!
Keen for some peace and quiet, I dispatched my husband on a fishing expedition after breakfast and returned to our luxurious tent to relax. Below our verandah, there was a 50m wide channel of water between us and a wooded island. Every day we had watched elephants traverse the island, foraging for food, this time however I focussed on the channel itself. For over an hour, a Goliath Heron stood knee-deep in the water, infinitely patient and still, stalking its prey. Nothing seemed to distract it; not the Coucals squabbling on the bank, not the Jacanas dancing on rafts of water hyacinth, not the Kingfisher hovering overhead, nor the terrapin inching its way up the bank. The cries of the Hadedas and Egyptian Geese didn’t deter him. Not even the bellows of the hippos on the other side of the island broke his concentration. I couldn’t stand the ‘suspense’ any longer and went off to find a cup of tea. The heron meanwhile, clearly deciding his patience was not going to be rewarded, strode purposefully to another hunting ground, a few metres away, and settled down to start all over again.
Anabezi is a truly special place, and we felt privileged to have had the opportunity to visit this wonderful part of Zambia. The end of our stay came way too soon, long before we were ready to leave. Our only consolation on departing was that our drive back across the park was a lot less daunting now that we actually knew where we were going!
Heading back into the Game Management Area, this time we were staying at Royal Zambezi Lodge, a picturesque, thatched lodge situated at one of the broadest points of the river. Setting out from the lodge, a sedate afternoon boat cruise soon turned into an unexpected game viewing opportunity, when we found seven lions resting on the river bank. Five sub-adult males and two young females lazed on the banks of the Zambezi. Two of the young males lay right on the edge of the overhanging river bank, watching us intently, not remotely shy or timid. These were a group, the guides told us, who had swum across the river from Zimbabwe, looking to claim new territory.
Worn out from the ‘rigours’ of safari life, I decided to take the next day off from boats, vehicles and early morning wake up calls. Waking at 5.30 am, just long enough to push my husband out the door and off on another fishing expedition. I allowed myself a sleep in, a cup of tea in bed and a leisurely breakfast alone while all the other lodge guests were out doing ‘activities’.
But a day of relaxing did not mean a day devoid of wildlife. Whilst I may have decided not to go to the animals, that did not stop them coming to me! A precocious young vervet monkey staged an ambush, helping itself to my unattended bread roll while I was distracted at lunch. After lunch, I retired for a nap on the daybed located on our private verandah that jutted out over the wide riverbank. An enormous monitor lizard surprised me by suddenly appearing from underneath the verandah. Not remotely intimidated by me it took its time thoroughly investigating the area before ambling off. Once ensconced on the day bed I had a rather pleasant nap, only stirring to check what was making the rustling noises beneath the deck. This turned out to be two huge extended families of warthogs, with three large elephants close by. As the sun went down I watched three malevolent looking crocodiles ‘fishing’ in the river in front of our room; lying motionless in the water with their mouths slightly open, waiting for a snack to swim into their ‘welcoming jaws’.
Our last night in the Lower Zambezi was definitely one to remember. Driving a short distance, downstream from the lodge, we arrived in a clearing where a long, lantern-lit table was set up for a bush dinner. A full moon and the sky above us like a blanket of shimmering stars. Lions roared across the water and we were serenaded by an ‘African choir’ of the lodge staff. Halfway through dinner we heard splashing behind us in the river and turning, saw a lone elephant wading across the river, heading our way, a silvery stream of reflected moonlight in its wake. I had visions of diners scattering in all directions. But the elephant reached a deep channel in the river and disappeared underwater. Resurfacing, he changed directions, heading downstream and leaving our dinner undisturbed. A magical end to a magical trip.
Written by: Sarah Kingdom
Photography: Anabezi Camp, Baines River Camp, Royal Zambezi Lodge
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