A pod of hippos—their unblinking eyes peeking from the surface of the Zambezi river—train their gaze on us as a group of tourists and I zip past on a speedboat. Flat dogs or crocodiles, some 15-feet-long, sun themselves on the river’s muddy banks—playing spectators to the humans. Suddenly, one of them slides into the river, disappearing from sight and setting an ominous Lake Placid-like mood. I shift in my seat, to move further away from the water. It’s hard to not feel vulnerable when having a close encounter with two of Africa’s deadliest animals. This indelible picture is just another day in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park—perhaps, Africa’s most underrated safari destination. Along a peaceful stretch of the Zambezi, the safaris feel different from the norm. The 1,600-mile-long river begins in Zambia, flows through Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, before emptying into the Indian Ocean, off Mozambique. It changes its form and intensity as it skirts through the country—from mist rising off its glassy patches in the morning to the thunderous spray of the Victoria Falls, bordering Zambia and Zimbabwe. The sparse tourist population visiting the country means that most of Zambia’s national parks preserve their status as an enduring paradise and hence, the only place of its kind in Africa.
Lower Zambezi, Zambia’s youngest and least developed park, is a true wilderness—home to lions, leopards, buffaloes, hippos, impala and baboons. Much of its scenic beauty is thanks to the 120-kilometre-long Zambezi riverfront, the concentration of game in the floor of the river valley and the backdrop of the Zambezi Escarpment—the southern limit of the Great East African Rift Valley.
The river separates it from Mana Pools National Park, a World Heritage Natural Site in Zimbabwe. The area, declared a national park in 1983, is a 4,000-square-kilometre strip of bush and riverine forest. Great swathes are yet to be properly mapped. Evidently, most areas still remain inaccessible by vehicles. However, more than a dozen river camps have sprung up recently. The absence of tar roads, fences and buffer zones, designated as GMA (Game Management Area), safeguard its biodiversity.
The speedboats take us to the luxurious Sausage Tree Camp, where we arrived just in time for our afternoon activity. Our guide, Ryan Wilmot introduces us to our canoe handlers, who would paddle us on wooden boats while we take in the sights. He warns us about some unlikely but potential circumstances—such as being dismembered by hippos or crocodiles. My canoe’s paddler is 23-year-old Richard Njobvu, a native who grew up in a nearby village. As we drift through the 14-kilometre-long Chifungula Channel, Ryan assures us that chances of capsizing are zero.
Our first brush with Zambia’s wild inhabitants is sighting saddle-billed storks, Egyptian ducks, the great white egret and common bee-eaters who flap, swim and fish around us as we glide down the calm waters. I notice Richard beat our canoe to make a loud swishing sound with the oar. “This is to let the hippos and the crocs know about our presence so they aren’t taken by surprise and attack us,” he says.
If this piece of information is supposed to comfort us, it doesn’t do a good job. As we approach midday, we watch a group of crocodiles lolling on the banks, and hippos floating about in the water. This dreamlike revelry is shattered when Ryan gestures Richard to change the course as he spots a hippo squirting and disappearing beneath the water. Fortunately, the animal changes course and we arrive back at camp unscathed.
After sundowners underneath two giant Baobab trees, we head for a night drive. Armed with an infra-red light (that doesn’t disturb the animals), Richard doubles as our tracker to find and identify nocturnal bush animals. As our Land Rover speeds into the jungle, the rocky patches give way to overgrown shrubs.
We pass a few more a baobabs and fruit-laden sausage trees, pausing to let an elephant family cross. We watch the pachyderms in awe, while Ryan throws in some trivia: elephants only digest an average of 30 per cent of their food and their faeces plays a role in maintaining the ecosystem. He breaks into details, “Ants, beetles, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and termites call elephant dung home, while baboons sift through it in search of undigested nuts and fruits.”
We scan the wild, hopeful of spotting a big cat at best. Our guide then receives a call on the radio about a leopard sighting. He whizzes us over the bumpy scrubland to arrive at the precise location where our tracker spots a female leopard hiding in the bushes. She is crouching, undisturbed by our presence. In a hushed tone, our guide advises us to speak softly and refrain from standing up. “The animal sees the vehicle as a bigger animal and is unable to distinguish the passengers individually,” he explains. We train our attention to the wild cat which stealthily makes its way towards a herd of impala at a distance. But it ends in an anti-climax, when she settles down at her new location, choosing instead to stare at her prey. “The wind is not on her side and if she goes any closer, the impala will smell her,” whispers Ryan, explaining that leopards are known to crouch for hours before going for the kill. Just then, the wireless crackles and we learn of a herd of lions nearby.
After a few wrong turns which lead to dead-ends, we finally reach the location where we’re graced by the majestic beasts. We find two males sleeping without a care in the world while another yawns widely to reveal his formidable teeth. On our return to the camp, we are joined by Jason Mott, creator of the safari at Sausage Tree Camp, for dinner. Mott shares how, during the course of building the camp, he “fell in love with the beauty and game of the area.” Most camps in the region support CLZ (Conservation Lower Zambezi), a non-governmental organisation which aids the Zambian Wildlife Authority and local communities in protecting the park’s habitat.
Setting an alarm clock isn’t necessary at Sausage Tree Camp as the hippos ensure you’re up at the break of dawn. As they dip their heads in and out of the river, their ‘laughs’ fill our rooms. I stretch on my private timber deck, taking in the primordial dawn unfolding its crimson hues in psychedelic patterns. My muchinda (private attendant) taps on the door, holding a tray with some freshly brewed coffee. There couldn’t have been a more idyllic setting.
Heading out for a morning game drive, the diversity of the park’s habitat strikes me. We negotiate floodplains strewn with palm trees and tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannahs, and shrub lands at the base of the escarpment. The sheer concentration of elephants here is extraordinary. We watch mothers guarding their infants and lone bulls stretching their trunks to feed from the winter thorn trees. The scenery has me transfixed and it is this variety and unpredictability of wildlife that holds appeal.
The wireless crackles again and we hurry to ‘the spot’. Our guide turns off the engine and motions us to be silent. I scan the golden shimmer of the grassy plains through my binoculars, as my gaze is held by a shape that rises and falls in quick succession. I catch my breath as I watch a leopard napping after a heavy meal. A young cub plays with a half-eaten puku (a species from the antelope family). As we watch, mesmerised, this prized encounter caps off an immersive experience of being deep in the African wild.
The best time to visit Lower Zambezi National Park is between May and October, as animals are easy to spot during the hotter months. Ethiopian, Emirates and Kenyan Airlines fly between Delhi/Mumbai and Lusaka, which is 216 km/2 hr from the park. Indians can apply for an e-visa at the Zambian government’s official website. Book a tour with one of the local tour operators running trips from Lusaka. The writer stayed at the Sausage Tree Camp (www.sausagetreecamp.com/3-day-2 night $1,800/Rs1,14,921, includes canoe rides and 2 safaris in a group of four).