My hunch that Mfuwe Lodge would suit a first-timer of a certain age is proving correct. Famous for the elephants that, in mango season, parade through reception to feast beneath the tree beyond, it’s also highly professional, with thoughtful staff, a beautiful, unfussy spa and comfortable vehicles — invaluable for anyone with creaky joints or a bad back. After a couple of days of superb wildlife-watching, we agree we’d like to learn more about life out side the park. Bushcamp’s imaginative approach to community engagement earned it a National Geographic World Legacy Award in 2016, but it’s the villagers who are the real winners.
Operations manager Mtimba Zulu guides us around the scattered settlement of Mfuwe, home to secondhand clothes traders — their wares spread on the ground — and businesses with colourful names: Captain Biggie General Dealers, God Is Able Phone Accessories, Pillar of Cloud Restaurant. On a back lane, we chat to women using a borehole funded by the Luangwa Conservation and Community Fund, created by Bushcamp’s director, Andy Hogg. “The pump is a big time-saver, as well as a life-saver,” says Martha Njobvu. “It used to take me three hours a day to bring water from the river.” As we prepare to visit Mfuwe Secondary School, I check how my mother’s holding up, but she’s not flagging. A retired university dental school administrator, she enjoys the company of young people, and smiles with approval as scholarship pupils discuss their favourite subjects.
On another day, we get creative at Mfuwe’s successful social enterprise Tribal Textiles. Workshop manager Moses Musa gives us a guided tour of the batik and sewing studios, then we settle down with paints and brushes to spend a blissful couple of hours decorating cushion covers. “By creating jobs for local men and women, we’re helping conservation,” says Moses. “With money coming in, people are less inclined to set snares to trap wildlife. But tourism in Zambia dropped last year, and that hit us hard.”
A sour trip unfolds, my mot her delights in the little surprises that safari companies love to spring on their guests, from brunches in the bush to sundowners on the banks of the Kapamba River, a shallow tributary of the Luangwa —its crocodile-free water cooling our feet. Meanwhile, the wildlife continues to wow her. Familiar with Africa from a lifetime of watching nature documentaries, she’s fascinated by the subtleties that film-makers rarely show — tiny harvester termite mounds, for example, and the abstract patterns traced by larvae onto rain tree leaves. Some phenomena are definitely best appreciated in 3D — how an elephant can disappear into a wall of green foliage, why zebra stripes provide perfect camouflage and how similar South Luangwa looks, at certain times of day, to an English pastoral scene.
Encountering everything from excitable hornbills to endangered wild dogs on the prowl, her beginner’s luck is soon proving something of a lucky streak. One evening, near Chindeni — one of the seasonal hideaways that give The Bushcamp Company its name — we spot an aardvark in plain view, a sighting so rare that afterwards we all laugh at the magic of it. It’s as if we’re ticking off the entire safari alphabet, from A to Z. To continue our trip, we fly south to the Lower Zambezi National Park, swooping along the Zambezi itself on our descent. Below, the purple-brown, Paisley-shaped outlines of hippos pattern the shallows. If protected, hippos can live to 50 years of age and on this stretch of river, flanked by national parks, they’re prolific. At our first stop, Chongwe River Camp, they make their presence felt through a round-the-clock chorus of chuckles and honks, like louche old men telling jokes in the bar.
Our other neighbours, to our delight, are a colony of white-fronted bee-eaters, whose aerial ballet plays out over the bank near our glamorous tented suite. Even they deliver something unexpected — when a monitor lizard appears, they switch into battle formation, mobbing it so fiercely it buries its head in an old burrow to escape. With fresh water at its feet, graceful mahogany and winter thorn trees shading its banks and russet hills at its back, Lower Zambezi is one of the most beautiful swathes of wilderness in the region and indeed in Africa. Once the private hunting reserve of Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, it’s now a conservation powerhouse; as of 2016, it’s also Africa’s first carbon neutral national park. The engine behind its success is Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), which runs educational workshops for local school children and helps villagers tackle the challenges of living alongside elephants and predators. CEO Ian Stevenson chats to us about its latest project: a programme to train local dog handlers who’ll be deployed on wildlife protection patrols.
By the time we reach our last camp, it’s hard not to brag about how much we’ve experienced. But Chiawa Camp is a place that makes you feel refreshed, it’s as if we’re starting our trip all over again. Grant Cumings, a co-founder of CLZ, launched Chiawa with his father, Dave, and brother, Kevin, in 1991, when Lower Zambezi was st ill in shock from the loss of many of its black rhinos and many of its elephants to poachers. Originally pretty basic, now its luxurious tents are full of pleasingly old-fashioned touches. Conservation informs everything Grant’s team does. “For years, we’ve been working towards bringing back rhinos to Lower Zambezi. It’ll take a high degree of collaboration, but we’ve proved that’s feasible. I’m hopeful the time will come,” he says.
We enjoy gentle drives and serene boat trips, watching elephants inch down the riverbank to drink. Finally, it’s our last evening with head guide Daniel Susiku, and we’re conscious we have a record to maintain — a leopard a day. Sure enough, we encounter a beautiful female, reclining like a sphinx beside the track. As Daniel turns the vehicle to leave, our tracker urges him to stop. In an instant, the leopard has sprinted across the clearing and pounced on a male impala considerably bigger than her. Astonished at her strength, we watch her bring him down, only for a pair of thieving hyenas to barge in. We drive away, railing at the injustice of life in the bush. But there’s a post script to this. Word later reaches us that a nearby herd of elephants, fearful for their young, came thundering up, scaring the hyenas away from the kill and allowing the leopard a chance to return. My mother, who likes a happy ending, is delighted. And so, I have to admit, am I.