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Zambia: The Perfect Safari For Beginners

Photo by paula french from Shutterstock

On safari, every day brings fresh discoveries. Elephants as bulky as ambulances file silently through the bush. Hippos wallow in weed-covered pools, clumped together like dumplings in soup. Rival impalas clash horns with shocking force, while others pronk and stare. Fish eagles screech, starlings shimmer in the glare and lions stagger into the shade to snooze. But the best things of all? They happen when you least expect them to. It’s an hour or so past sunset, the last rays have ebbed away and we’re motoring slowly back to our lodge.

Beyond the sandy track, the visible world has shrunk to a patchwork of shadows, swept by the beam of our spotlight. Occasionally, we pick out a glimmer of eye shine: a wakeful antelope, or a scrub hare quivering in the grass. Frogs clink and quoip from a nearby lagoon and our noses twitch, alert to the cool, damp aromas of night. Suddenly, there’s a flash of movement. Like lightning, a trio of zebra dash across our path, lit first by the beam, then by our headlights.

Manda Chisanga, our driver and guide from The Bushcamp Company, brakes swiftly. “There must be a cat on their tail!” he whispers. The zebra are in tight formation: a mare, a stallion and between them, sprinting for dear life, a tiny youngster. In a split second, their pursuer appears, a blur of sinew, muscle and spots. It’s a leopard. The stallion kicks out and the cat, foiled, stalls. “That baby could have been born today,” says Manda. “Welcome to the world, little zebra! Looks like you’ve passed your first test.” My mother, who’s in the front beside Manda, is beyond excited. Her eyes are out on stalks. We’re exploring the world-class South Luangwa National Park, where leopards thrive. But we hadn’t dared hope to see one on our first evening, let alone in such dramatic circumstances. Sightings oft his calibre don’t happen every day, even here.

“Trust you to have world-class beginner’s luck!” I say. I’m fortunate to have been on safari many times, but for my mother, aged 73, this is a first — her first safari, her first visit to Africa, her first journey south of the equator. You wouldn’t guess it, though. Fascinated by everything, she’s in her element, chatting knowledgeably with Manda and revelling in every experience.

For me, our adventure is a first in a different way. My mother and I have travelled together before, lapping up art exhibitions and lingering in cafes in European cities. But this is my first chance to show her a different world, one I love with a passion. In the process, I’m hitting refresh on an experience I know well. By sharing a safari with someone I’ve known all my life, I’m seeing Africa with new eyes.

Zambia offers its visitors two of Africa’s mightiest rivers, the Zambezi and its tributary the Luangwa. Back in the 1990s, when The Bushcamp Company started running safaris beside the Luangwa and two of Africa’s best riverbank camps, Chiawa Camp and Chongwe River Camp, opened in the Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia wasn’t an obvious destination for first-timers. Most stuck to Kenya and Tanzania; the adventurous few who travelled further south typically chose Zimbabwe or, if they had deep pockets, Botswana and South Africa. It was only when Zimbabwe’s tourism industry collapsed in the early 2000s that neighbouring Zambia stepped into the spotlight with a safe, competitive alternative. These days, its best safari hideouts are classics in their own right — rustic, intimate and committed to excellence in guiding and conservation.

Unlike many African countries, Zambia allows night drives in its national parks — a treat if you’re intrigued by the dark and its pungent, velvety mysteries. Zambian safari operators have a knack for bringing tourists and locals together through sensitive, effective development projects. I’m aware that, although reasonably fit, my mother isn’t interested in Zambia’s more famous speciality, walking safaris — pioneered by legendary local guides like Norman Carr, Phil Berry and Robin Pope.

An eager traveller, my mother took to our pre-departure preparations with minimal fuss — getting jabs, asking neighbours to water her plants, buying anti-malarials at Asda and insurance from her bank. Once you’re over 65, travelling carries hidden costs. Even with a loyalty discount, my mother’s single-trip policy was well over twice the price of my annual premium. Undaunted, she paid up and worked through our packing list. The promise of same-day laundry meant we didn’t need much, but on safari, clothes in neutral tones are best. Blue and black attract tsetse flies and bright or pale colours stand out too much, even if you’re not going walking. “That’s my entire summer wardrobe out, then,” said my mother. A shopping trip ensued.

Primed for strict luggage limits, my mot her proved expert at packing light. Before we checked in at Heathrow, she pulled out a few items to ask my advice. I’d recommended a sun hat that wouldn’t blow off in an open vehicle, so she’d sewn ribbons onto hers. “Brilliant,” I said, feeling like a teacher checking my pupil’s coursework. She t hen produced three types of insect repellent, bought in a rare wobble of indecision. “Let’s just take them all,” I said, feeling a sudden need to preserve all my mental energy for the journey ahead.

I needn’t have worried. My mother coped patiently with our three flights, despite her artificial hip causing a frenzy of beeping at each security check. She loved people-watching at the airport in Nairobi, her first taste of real-life, modern-day Africa — a mishmash of travellers in smart heels, showy trainers, urban sportswear and elaborate traditional gowns. By the time we arrived at Mfuwe Lodge and Manda greeted us like old friends, I knew everything was going to be fine.

Manda had a suggestion. One of the local schools that Bushcamp sponsors had won a music and dance competition and was holding an impromptu concert to celebrate. Would we like to drop in? Tired but keen, we said yes. So we found ourselves in the schoolyard of Chiwawatala Primary School among ranks of radiant children, their faces glowing as their friends and teachers sang and danced. It was the best welcome we could have imagined.

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