The beauty of going on safari in Zambia
In Africa the lion may sleep tonight, but on Zambia’s Nanzhila Plains he rises early.
Every sense stood to attention as the male lion gave his family a predawn roar-up along our camp perimeter. Thinking ahead to our morning game drive, I took comfort knowing I’d be layered up against the morning cold and hopefully harder to unwrap. But, for now, I revelled in the sanctuary of my cosy bed as I listened for a response from his pride.
There was none. Leo was alone in the wilderness, and I knew the feeling. However, while he was trying to rustle up company, I was mighty glad not to have much of it. Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp in Kafue National Park is part of Zambia’s best and longest kept secret, and I wanted it to stay that way.
It may not for long, as increasing numbers of safari lovers discover what has been right under their noses. Until now, Zambia visitors were more likely to head for the tourist hotspots of Livingstone, Victoria Falls and Luangwa National Park, or Botswana’s busy Chobe National Park. However, with the market ever seeking fresh frontiers, eyes have suddenly opened to Kafue’s rich resource.
Proclaimed in the 1950s but with vast tracts still unexplored, Kafue is Zambia’s oldest and largest national park at roughly the size of Wales. With Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp being the closest true safari experience to Livingstone, and southern Kafue’s only accommodation option, the rumble of safari trucks may not be far away.
A new road between Livingstone and the park’s southern Dundumwezi gate will hasten that. Due for completion by the 2019 tourist season, it will cut a three hour drive to the gate almost in half. Once there, the Camp is another hour into the park through pretty miombo woodland, although only in the dry and high season of April to October. Travel in the wetter months along the longer, higher access can add another two hours to the journey.
Flying in is another possibility, although it costs. Airstrips service each of Kafue’s distinct regions -southern plains, central lakes and northern rivers - which can also be reached along Kafue’s spinal main road, making self driving an option. Each sector of the park has its unique character and wildlife, so they are worth a look if you have the time.
We had just four days, so elected to spend them all at Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp. Its proximity to Livingstone, affordable rates, range of accommodation options and activities, easy booking and transfer arrangements attracted us, as did its diversity of wildlife.
This included Leo and his buddies. While the big cats become more prolific the further north in the park you go, the south’s burgeoning antelope numbers now draw all the large predators, including hyena and wild dogs.
As I lay in bed listening to Leo’s frustrated rant, I chuckled over our wild leopard chase of the previous day. Many times we drove the same few kilometres of track looking for the maker of leopard prints in the dirt, only to discover the elusive feline had walked over our previous tyre marks in our short absence and vanished once more. In the end we left him to his game playing and returned to camp, to have our host hear him rasping later that night, as if teasing us again.
While it may not have the animal numbers of other parks, Kafue hosts greater diversity of wildlife than almost any other African nature preserve. Nearly 500 bird species call it home, some found nowhere else in southern Africa. The rare sable and roan feature among its 21 antelope species, and it boasts all the major predators, buffalo and large populations of elephant. Yet, in 2017 it attracted just over 11,000 visitors, compared with similar sized parks like South Africa’s Kruger, which got almost a million.
Tucked up in bed anticipating a morning’s wildlife viewing, I considered that a good thing. There is no jostling for view here, and the few safari trucks have little impact. The animals haven’t retreated from frenzied human activity and are easily visible, particularly in the drier months when they congregate near waterholes like the reedy oasis directly in front of Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp.
They dictated our daily schedule. When the wildlife was active early morning or late afternoon, we got active, and when it rested in the midday heat, we retired to our comfortable chalet or the open-walled communal lounge to chat with other guests.
Come evening we would be back on the safari truck searching for animals and a scenic spot to enjoy a sundowner and the glorious sunset. Only as the dense African night descended would we turn the truck for camp, eagerly anticipating an haute-cuisine dinner and lively discussion around the open fire.
Here the topic would often turn to poaching. Hosts, Steve and Cindy, and their local villager staff know the park, its animals and threats well, and seemed positive about their recovery from decades of plunder by poachers. For Leo’s sake, I hope they are right.
Early indications are promising. An October 2017 Wilderness Safari survey reported Kafue’s antelope numbers increased exponentially from 2007, populations of red lechwe up by an astounding 487%. This is no doubt due to the colossal and combined anti-poaching efforts of the Zambian Wildlife Authority, local operators like Steve and Cindy, villagers, Game Rangers International and other conservation NGOs.
The time had come to see some of these recovering populations for myself; leave my luxurious bed and roar up my own buddies and breakfast. Leo had gone quiet, although he wasn’t fooling me, and I would still be layering up, at least from the cold.
Kafue mornings are so unadulterated you want to pull them over the rest of the day to seal in the purity and promise. I stepped into this one not knowing what was ahead of me or around the corner, except that it wouldn’t be many other humans. I liked that.
I liked that I was in a fresh safari frontier where people now help animals to thrive but don’t yet overwhelm them with their presence. I could see wildlife as nature intended it to be, which is what a true safari experience – for both animals and humans – is all about.