In early May of this year Jana and I had the immense good fortune to undertake a little exploration in Zambia. It was a fact finding mission visiting three national parks over fourteen nights and unwittingly, during the adventure, we fell head over heels in love with the Lower Zambezi National Park.
What is it that makes this place stand out amongst the crowd of wilderness experiences and stunning locations in which we have lain our hats over the past few years? As I sit here typing, on this delayed plane, nested upon a runway and awaiting the monstrous flight to Los Angeles, I’m filled with vivid memories of a mighty river fringed by winter thorn trees and thriving with wildlife.
I’m desperate to transport myself back there and I’d love your company, to get us somehow closer to our destination I transcribe here an extract from my safari journal. Two canoes carry four passengers. The afternoon sun warms our backs as we paddle with flow of an African icon, they call her Zambezi.
7thMay 2018 – Chiawa Camp, Lower Zambezi
At two o’clock we finish a quick cup of tea and head down to the jetty. Our lead canoe guide today will be Moses, a charming, softly spoken man with a curious gaze and a splendid smile. Moses was born just thirty kilometres upstream and has been paddling the river since he was a teenager, he belongs on the Zambezi. Moses’ junior and our second guide is astonishingly called Bismarck! Bismarck’s father was a history teacher with a great love and respect for the Iron Chancellor of the Second Reich. The young man shows nothing of his namesake’s stern and unwavering character, he’s delightfully humorous.
Moses briefs us as we motor upstream for thirty minutes, trailing our two canoes in the wake. What to do if the canoe tips over, what to do if you find yourself wetter than you should be, why not to trail your hands through the river. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, you get the proper impression that you are embarking on an activity that is potentially dangerous but that you are doing so with an expert in his field.
We climb into our canoes, Jana joins Moses up front and I’m bringing up the rear with Bismarck (not a sentence one often gets the chance to write). We take the main channel, vast in its width and shifting us at a swift pace downstream just meters from the shoreline. After ten minutes we swing to the left and paddle into one of the capillaries that net and rete along both flanks of this African artery. We’ve entered the Nkalenge, a channel named tranquillity.
The current slows and there is immediate peace in an already much narrower stretch of river. On either side here we see the tell-tale short grasses of hippo lawns, kept trim and proper through the evening attentions of ravenous “Nile horses”. Egrets strut across these pitches white and resplendent like umpires at the cricket, occasionally flying up with a rasping kafuffle, the sound of no-ball.
We pass pods of hippopotami huddled in shady patches of water. Jets of fine mists explode from their valve like nostrils rasping the peaceful air with a rainbow mist in the afternoon glow. These are huge animals that move can move through the water as if it’s air, it’s intimidating and thrilling being at this surface water perspective with them. Moses and Bismarck teach us to manoeuvre around the pods and individuals, allowing each the time to retreat to a point of comfort before passing. They seem to have mapped every hippo, those that are not where they expect them are sought out with eyes honed to distinction. We feel safe.
I spot a large Nile Monitor lizard lazing on the limb of a Jackal Berry Tree above us, his clawed feet dangle either side of his perch and you can make out the green, grey, yellow and black of his ornate splash patterning. We are almost beneath him when our proximity becomes unbearable and he opts for the fifteen-foot plunge into the water swimming expertly away with a serpentine thrashing of his muscular tail.
White-Throated Bee-Eaters mesmerize us, zitting in and out of their “hole in the wall” nests with a flourish of colour and speed. Here begin the elephant sightings. First a group of five or six large bachelor bulls, feeding on a thicket of Flame Creeper on the banks above us. We can hear the crack of branches and glimpse them only partially as the manoeuvre themselves through the bush.
Soon we find ourselves gliding downstream toward a large breeding herd of elephant. Paddles out of the water and undetected by the matriarch we park ourselves on the opposite bank and watch as the adult females wade in to imbibe huge trunkful’s of river water while their youngsters squelch and splash on the muddy banks behind. Again I am awed by the perspective of this sighting, always at water’s surface looking up at the ecosystem that surrounds us. Not only that but the silence of our movement, the lack of an engine or even the tramp and crack of an untrained boot in the bush.
As we continue on, the canopy above us opens and the river bank reveals several huge buffalo bulls chewing the cud in the shade of a palm thicket. Adorned with impossibly white cattle egrets and feisty little ox-peckers, these giant grey-brown judges barely raise an eyebrow as we make our way past.
On our left now, thick dry grass grows right to the river’s edge and we paddle within meters of the bank. In front of us Moses swings his canoe out front first, he and Jana spin into the middle or the river and he gestures silently for us to look closer at the edge, speaking with his eyes – “move away”. Bismark digs in his paddle and, as we pull away, I decipher the tawny face of a juvenile male lion, staring out at the river in puzzlement. Then I see another and another and boff! Like a spring trap, four male lions bolt back in fright. Having suddenly realised what we are they beat a hasty retreat, disappearing into the thicket behind.
It’s a split second in nature but the moment will remain etched in great detail within our memories of this place. As we round the final bend in the channel named tranquillity, I’m glowing with happiness. We meet the boat and climb aboard on to watch the sunset with a cold beer as we drift back to camp. I’m really going to miss this place.