When you read this tale of savagery and beauty found in South Luanga, Busanga and the lower Zambezi, it’s hard to imagine that Zambia is Africa’s least-sought safari destination. Perhaps it’s the time go and see for yourself.
By: Devanshi Mody
Savage in South Luangwa
Within minutes of entering South Luangwa National Park, we see lions mating. A scene so perfect seems staged. But this park, among Africa’s top five national parks, proves to be a Theatre of The Wild unfolding in intensely dramatic acts.
Drama continues as we speed down a road so humped my mother’s handbag jumps out. Mum begins shrieking, like baboons on a distress call, “What if the monkeys snatch my passport?!” Our guide, Jacob Shawa, doesn’t think passports and credit cards will tickle any animal’s fancy. Unhurried, he retrieves the bag as my mum unravels. Jungle life clearly doesn’t care for a passport to flee South Luangwa.
Our camp, Shawa Luangwa Camp, perches over the Luangwa River, which must be majestic when swollen after the rains. The rains are delayed, and the river has shrivelled to a rat’s-tail of water. The riverscape arrests, nevertheless, and attracts carmine bee-eaters. These cacophonous birds, bursting into colour in flight, reddening the skies like the setting sun, migrate to breed and nest in recesses furrowed in the riverbanks.
That evening we encounter 21 wild dogs – more than I’ve seen across my ample safari experiences. Jacob explains that they are endangered, not because of poaching, but because they feed, on regurgitated food, so diseases transmit like wildfire, exterminating entire packs. We lavish hours waiting for the dogs to hunt, excited when they gather and trot in a circle in an extraordinary pre-hunt ritual, only to flop down in the enervating heat.
We are heading back in twilight when the Jeep swings around. In the silence, a leopard emerges stealthily walking into the spotlight of a sharp white sliver of moon. He pauses, almost self-consciously to be photographed, and then slithers into the dusky trees. Then, yet another theatrical appearance.
A young leopardess. Slender, elegant, of delicate gait, necklaced in black pearls for her evening out. She is a beauty, and we understand how the word “catwalk” was coined. Later, we learn that Luangwa isn’t about spotting a leopard, but rather how many are spotted in a day.
A Dinner Theatre
Surprises continue the next day, but nothing tops our “dinner theatre” in the jungle after sundowners. The Jeeps gather to shine heir headlights on a spot against the rocks from where lurid shrieking, howling, long histrionic whining emanate. It’s like an open-air opera. We spot eight hyenas shredding an impala, the same decapitated leopard kill we saw earlier that afternoon hanging limply from a tree.
As they savage the impala, bones are heard being wrenched out, crushed and crunched; tatters of meat fly out for which come cantering hyenas of another clan, chased away with ferocity amidst the gluttonous onslaught. Then we notice Mr Leopard saunter back to the tree looking up for his supper, not spotting it, circling the tree.
Several minutes later, remarking the hyenas, he walks towards a perch from where he stoically watches his supper being hacked and hewed into in a paroxysm of hooting carnal delight. Never have we witnessed such barbarity, even in the jungle. The next morning a hippo, supposedly vegetarian, avidly licks leftovers. Animals behave bizarrely in Luangwa.
We overnight at Ila Lodge to see cheetah in the thickets of Kafue National Park. Isaac Kapangila, our guide at the new Chisa Busanga Camp, drives us to Busanga Plains, rain-refreshed with carpets of lush, gleaming grass.
Sharp zig zags of lightening zip the horizon as the drum beat of thunder serenades us to camp, where a boisterous jumbo elephant wants to thump down with his swinging trunk. The camp presents astonishing “nest tents” inspired by a weaver’s nest that Vincent Kouwenhoven, the Dutch founder of Green Safaris, spotted on waking from a nap under a tree.
On our first game drive, Isaac zooms us straight to Scarface, a celebrity lion, perhaps the largest lion in Zambia, renowned for his dimensions and his features. Unlike Luangwa’s puny lions with mangy mains, this is a handsome creature, aureoled in an opulent main. He has fathered prides across the plains and demonstrates his machismo as he mounts Princess, the prettiest lioness in Busanga. Her sister, Maggie, aunts over Princess’s cubs and her own boys, all fathered by Scarface.
The next morning, Isaac ventures with trepidation – the plains are rain-drenched; if the jeep gets stuck, you extract it after the rains… in February! Paradise isn’t as lovely as stretches of plains studded with waterbodies where red lechwe and puku play and paradisal birds flock.
Humungous crocodiles don’t disrupt the serenity. Only the ungainly grunt of the massive hippo is less than melodious. Everything in Busanga seems on a magnified scale. Animals feed well and thrive, contrasting Luangwa’s parched, cadaverous denizens.
We try the electric safari vehicles that Green Safaris promotes. Admirable though the eco-centric initiative, the game drive suspends for long pauses to preserve battery. We’re out seeking the Busanga bad boys, (whom Scarface banished to the extremities of Busanga and with whom Princess’s sister, Kinktail, eloped).
Suddenly, the earth trembles. There’s roaring and thudding, like a terrific earthquake. Isaac points, “The Busanga boys!” We see only specks gliding beyond a waterbody. By the time we revive the motorised vehicle from its torpor, the lions have vanished.
Lapping up lower Zambezi
In lower Zambezi, a thrilling boat ride brings us to remote Sausage Tree Camp. Across the wide and heaving Zambezi lies Zimbabwe, so close you could swim there, but for the crocodiles. The all-white camp reinforces a sense of pristine seclusion. Zambian-born manager, Faith Chiwende, initiates us into camp rituals. My brother impatiently interjects, “What’s the Wi-Fi password?” Faith despairs. Here, one must disconnect from modern life and live.
The river offers itself to us in a myriad of ways. We canoe through trim and picturesque channels bloated with hippos. On river safaris, we see elephants crossing from Zimbabwe to Zambia – no visas required. A luxury cruise sails us into the sunset as lilac lipped hills waver yonder, as if holding their soft mouths to the rosy-cheeked skies.
On one morning drive, our guide Charles Tembo sights a massive baboon with a baby impala’s remains extruding from its mouth like a cigar. From the baboon’s frenzy, Charles suspects something more sensational is happening. There emerges the leopard whose kill the baboon has purloined. Leopards are clearly not the shrewdest custodians of their kills.
We’d like to linger, but Charles whizzes to camp where we are put on a boat. It’s midday and the sun is hammering down. We’re quickly deposited on a blazing white sandbank where a banquet awaits us in the embrace of the august Zambezi.
Another surprise is shattered when the heavens grumble as we attempt sundowners in roaring winds and find ourselves wrapped in a whirlwind of scattered peanuts. Charles reveals the evening was ordained for a boma supper in the woods, which didn’t happen, nor did the menacing rain. All that’s wet is barman, Brian Maliti’s, wine irrigating my throat at camp.
Where to stay
The properties mentioned are part of the Green Safari group.
Proflight (between Lusaka and South Luangwa): proflight-zambia.com
Staravia Air Charters (charters across Zambia, specialising in Kafue National Park and Busanga Plains): staraviazambia.com
Royal Air Charters (between Lusaka and Lower Zambezi): royalaircharters.com
FLY SAA flies between Johannesburg to Lusaka, Zambia, four days a week. From there, take a connecting flight to your destination.