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Eco-Safari in Zambia

Beautiful, friendly, and virtually untouristed–this is the next safari destination.

Andrew Solomon in Zambia. Photo: Luca Trovato.

Photo: Luca Trovato

A few years ago, I spent a month driving with a friend through southern Africa. Our plans were vague and our knowledge thin until one night in Botswana, when we eavesdropped on a bearded man with an air of sublime safari competence, solicited his advice, and rewrote our itinerary. But we had little opportunity to apply our fantastic new certainties. Two days later we overturned our car on a rough road in Zimbabwe, bringing our trip to an abrupt and ignominious end. For five years I fantasized about returning to southern Africa, and last July finally set off to explore Zambia with two good friends and the photographer Luca Trovato, along with the bearded man himself, Gavin Blair.

We wanted to visit a country that was challenging, obscure, and fresh; interesting, beautiful, and not dangerous. We wanted someplace with good game viewing, as well as access to local culture. In Zambia, the former Northern Rhodesia, Gavin said we would feel as though we were discovering an Africa still unknown to the masses who’ve inundated the parks in Kenya, northern Tanzania, and South Africa. In fact, during two weeks there—aside from three days on what passes for a highway—we saw a total of 11 other vehicles.

Gavin Blair is not a typical safari guide. Most are on a five-year adventure, but Gavin has been doing this since he left school more than a dozen years ago and plans to do it forever. A white Zimbabwean, he is licensed as a guide in three countries, and is familiar with back roads and obscure species in several others as well. He knows the Latin names for most plants you may see, the mating seasons of insects, and the spoor of every animal. He is a teetotaler. More like an explorer from the last century than one of those smoothies who have taken over much of the modern safari industry, he can fix a car, your binoculars, the broken wing of a bird, and the injured feelings of people bickering around the fire. Most splendid of all is that his interest is passionate, as is his wish to communicate, so that he is delighted by every question, no matter how banal.

Gavin collected us at Mfuwe Airport, a small landing strip with good access to north-central Zambia’s parks. We drove for an hour along a tar road, past villages, and then 10 miles down a dirt path to our first lodge at Wildlife Camp, in South Luangwa National Park. We were given simple but clean chalets close together under a spreading acacia; there were little white curtains in the windows and mosquito nets to lower over the beds, adequate bathrooms with primitive showers, and a lovely view. Gavin’s wife, Marjorie, was waiting for us in camp. Marjorie is an able cook who can make a bed quickly and has a sharp eye for game, and is also a distinguished French horn player who travels to Britain for three months each year to play with the Glyndebourne Touring Opera. She is very beautiful. She clearly prefers animals to all people except Gavin, whom she adores. Above all, she acts as a softening influence on the safari.

We spent our first day in South Luangwa—starting early, when the animals make the most of the cool; eating a picnic lunch under a huge baobab tree; and staying to see the emergence of the predators, who hunt by twilight. We four were at that naïve stage when every animal seems marvelous, and paused to look even at pukus, reddish antelope as common in Zambia as fleas on a mangy dog. We saw crocodiles and watched hippos going down a slide of their own making to settle happily into shallow waters. We saw a hyena seeing a herd of zebras. Best of all were the elephants, which, like huge ballerinas, tiptoe through the mud, letting their feet go flat only when they are standing on solid ground. A long history of poaching has made Zambian game wary. Nonetheless, one young bull elephant held his ground heart-stoppingly close to us, and we observed him for a half-hour while he used his trunk as though it were a telescope seeking out stars in the mud.

On the second day we saw our first lion. Glinting and deliberate, she stalked a young puku frozen in terror. No dance of seven veils was ever more calculated in its build, more petrifyingly irresistible. That day we also saw wildebeests that looked like grumpy old men on an expedition, a tall and lovely kudu, waterbuck, and hundreds of willowy impalas. We watched giraffes preparing to mate: the male gargles the female’s urine to see whether she is in season. We wondered at those whimsical long necks and huge eyes, invented on God’s most playful day.

After exploring the river area of South Luangwa, where game is thickest, we headed for the escarpment that rings the Luangwa Valley. Driving conditions were rough: we had to forge rivers, and sometimes the road became so faint that it disappeared. Mostly we sat on the vehicle’s roof, bouncing, ducking low-hanging branches, getting too much sun, spotting occasional animals and many new plants. One of those bounces bounced my wallet out of my back pocket, but since we doubted we’d find it we went onward. We traversed lowlands infested with tsetse flies, which was awful, but we also picked and ate marula plums in fertile valleys and dissolved the powdery contents of baobab pods on our tongues.

It was afternoon by the time we reached the escarpment. Up we drove, on a road so steep it seemed the vehicle might fall off the face of the rock. When we got to a really deep pothole, we stopped to fill it with rocks so that we could go on. On and on we climbed, through bush that was both lush and desolate, and then suddenly, when we were thinking we couldn’t stand it any more, we were on top, and the landscape we’d been in since our arrival was spread beneath us like a map, as broad as the horizon. It was clear and orderly and miniaturized, as if we were seeing it through memory and not our eyes.

Village along Great East road, Zambia. Photo: Hans Hillewaert. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Village along Great East road,
Zambia. Photo: Hans Hillewaert. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Gavin had warned that it would be a long day’s drive. The road north of the escarpment was so riddled with holes that you had to weave around its lesions. “The only ones who go straight,” Gavin observed, “are the drunk drivers.” We were cantankerous and hungry by the time we reached a lovely Tudor cottage with climbing roses, a formal garden, and a picket fence that announced our arrival at Kapishya Hot Springs Lodge. A rather fey white man wrapped in a cotton sarong called a kikoi came trotting down the path. “Well, well, well,” said Mark Harvey, “I’d really given up on you, quite given up. But do come in, come in.” A group of villagers holding oil lamps was standing behind him. “Ernest,” he said to a helper, “get the luggage in, and have them warm supper.” Turning to us, he went on: “There’s just enough time for a dip before dinner.”

We were shown to the rather basic little guest cottages; then Ernest led us to a pool a few hundred yards away. Its bottom was covered in white sand, and a few steps hewn out of the living rock descended into the water. Clouds of steam were rising from the surface, and through them a single palm tree was silhouetted against the almost-full moon. We took off our clothes and slipped into the water, and never before have I had such an exhilarating feeling of the day washing away. The warm, warm water bubbled up through the sand, and our eyes were cleaned of Luangwa’s hot, bright landscapes by the silver light that penetrated the steam. Afterward we went to sit beside a bonfire, where we had gin and tonics, ate shepherd’s pie, and listened to Harvey’s story of the house called Shiwa Ngandu, which his grandfather had built, implausibly located a 10-hour drive north of Lusaka on the Great North Road.

Shiwa Ngandu, where we went in the morning, is not colonial Africa; it is non-Africa, a corpulent Victorian mansion set in the middle of immense English gardens. To walk through the gardens, still half-kept by loyal servants but essentially rather dilapidated, was to find a dream of England being consumed by the voracious jungle appetite of Africa. We felt as though we were snared in the incontrovertible evidence of history. Beneath blossoming vines that covered fussy arbors, we looked out to the mountains and the splendor of a far lake, the slight movements of game in the bush.

Amused and spooked, we soon pressed on westward toward the Bangweulu Swamps. A small road led through dozens of villages of thatched mud-and-brick huts. The people, dressed mostly in African fabrics, were barefoot and poor but not ill or hungry. They would stop whatever they were doing and run to wave to us. Children would dance and sing, and some did jigs in our wake. We felt that we were an occasion.

At lunchtime we stopped in a village, and since English is the national language of Zambia (there are 35 tribal languages), we could communicate easily. A 20-year-old, Willie Momba, invited me into his one-room house, took me to see his fields (one guava tree, six scallions, four rows of sweet potatoes, and two rows of tomatoes), and introduced me to his wife. He had one cherished possession, a camera, but he’d never had any film, so I gave him two rolls. We knew they would remember us: tourists here are not a necessary inconvenience, but a somber and nearly ambassadorial occasion.

By afternoon, the villages had become smaller, poorer, and closer to the road. Near sunset, Gavin turned (at random, it seemed) onto a vast plain. Twenty minutes later we came upon a causeway, and after another half-hour we reached camp. Around us in every direction for miles stretched the uncharted mire, foggy and shapeless in the night and full of strange sounds and animal cries. Never have I been anywhere that felt so like the end of the earth. We went to sleep early and had strange dreams.

At dawn we set out with four local guides, broad-smiling men, barefoot but with hats, who had a mystical sense of direction. We sought the shoebill, the most elusive bird in Africa. Through bits of shrub we trekked, and when we came to water we poled or paddled across in small boats. As we went on, the ground around us got spongier and the morass wetter. Then we came to the floating earth. In this weirdest place of all, the thick grasses had matted their roots together and held soil tightly in them, but beneath were stretches of mucky water. Though it looked like an ordinary field, it gave and shifted underfoot; you sank a few inches with each step. It was like walking across the top of a bowl of soup covered in saran wrap, or strolling on a plush-covered water bed.

Passionate now to see the shoebill, we went on, eventually reaching the point at which the floating earth could not bear our weight. We sank in up to our knees, sometimes to our waists. And we finally found our object: a creature out of James Thurber, a prehistoric bird that came into the world not long after the pterodactyl left, with a beak like a giant clog stuck absurdly on the front of its head. We saw three shoebills; then, muddy and content, we trooped back and took long showers. We spent the afternoon looking at skinks scuttling about camp, feeling like the only people in all the universe.

That evening we drove back along the causeway a few miles, past fishermen’s reed huts you could blow down with a huff, and onto the floodplain that lies beside the swamp. Flocks of wattled cranes performed mating dances there; beyond them were red lechwe antelope, 5,000 in a herd. Gavin set the throttle so the vehicle wandered along at about 10 miles per hour, and came and joined the rest of us on the roof. As we were slow and steady and lumbering, the animals were not so afraid; we passed through the way a baggage cart traverses a crowded airport. Back at camp, Marjorie made a resplendent dinner. When she brought out bananas flambé for dessert we heard gales of laughter from the staff. Tears rolling down their faces, they told us that the lady had set our dinner on fire!

Leaving the Bangweulu Swamps was like passing back through Alice’s looking glass. Along the road we had taken two days earlier, we once more waved at dancing children. In one village, Willie Momba called to us from the side of the road. He produced a box tied up with string. “I’ve been waiting for you to come back. I wanted to give you these sweet potatoes,” he said, presenting what must have been a third of his harvest. “I was so glad to meet you.” And he smiled his big smile, and after some protest we accepted his gift. He stood in the road and waved at us until we were quite out of sight. We felt privileged to have visited this world, to have been the objects of these people’s gentle affection. Their poignant generosity, the intense interest they showed in us, and their unaffected good humor were as appealing and as fundamental to our experience of the country as the impeccable weather.

Farther from the swamps, the houses became bigger again and were set back from the road, and the people were more prosperous. Perhaps they had seen more foreigners, because they waved more sedately and from farther away. By midafternoon we came upon a sign, bright blue letters on white, which said, TURN RIGHT TO THE PALACE OF CHIEF CHITAMBO. A hundred yards on was another sign pointing, THIS WAY TO THE PALACE OF CHIEF CHITAMBO. We drove past a school and a dirt field of children bouncing balls. The largest sign yet announced, YOU ARE APPROACHING THE PALACE OF CHIEF CHITAMBO. PLEASE REMOVE YOUR HAT AND GET OFF YOUR BICYCLE. Beyond low gates was a small square of well-kept English-looking grass, in the middle of which stood a tall flagpole. At the far side of the green were three identical low, white buildings, and some scattered sheds.

Beneath a tree could be seen the legs of a deck chair, most of which was obscured by an enormous newspaper. The newspaper descended to reveal a spry man in camping shorts. “You are welcome to my palace,” said the chief in a plummy accent. He led us to his office, where he told us the history of the Chitambe tribe. He was committed to land conservation, he told us, and he rode around on his bicycle each year to visit every one of his 90,000 subjects.

Drinking the Coca-Cola he had given us, we told him how beautiful Zambia was, and how kind his tribesmen had been to us, and a little bit about America. The chief passed a guest book for us to sign. Outside, he showed us around the grounds. The three low buildings were for his three wives; he spends a week with one, a week with the next, and a week with the third. When we mentioned our practice of having only one wife and living with her full-time, he wondered, “Don’t you end up arguing a lot?”

The chief had his picture taken with each of us under the flag. As we were leaving he explained, sotto voce, that it was customary to leave some small trinket after such a meeting. We gave him a few dollars for his education fund, and then one of us offered a hat she had planned to give to a child. It was a sort of squashed tennis hat made of bright plaid with large figures of Bert and Ernie sewn on the front. Chief Chitambo put on the hat, and, when he had it adjusted perfectly, we did a group picture. Then we piled back into our vehicle, and the chief, like Willie Momba, stood in the road and waved until we turned a corner and were out of sight.

By the time we arrived at the small Kasanka National Park, the moon was full and the valley smelled of flowers. Gavin woke us in our comfortable rooms at Wasa Lodge the next morning before sunrise, and we climbed a tall, rickety ladder into the highest branches of a tree. From there, as the sun lifted the steam, we saw herds of the rare sitatunga antelope. Gavin had brought a thermos; we drank tea and munched biscuits and heard the first birdsong. One of us had to fly to London that day, and so we headed to Lusaka. It was a sad day, and a long one, too.

Lusaka is a pit: ugly, dirty, crowded, and smelly. We stayed outside town at a plush lodge. Our rooms had modern light fixtures, and hot water came out of the tap whenever you turned it on, and there was even a swimming pool—all quite welcome after the swamps. When I headed to my rondavel after dinner, I found it surrounded by zebras, grazing on the verdant lawn. When I slowly approached they stepped not more than three feet aside. I stopped at the door and looked at one, and she returned my gaze. If you have spent a week looking through binoculars and craning your neck to see animals properly, such sudden intimacy is heady stuff. The zebra and I stared curiously like strangers on a train; and then, as though she had found out all she needed, she turned and trotted off.

The next day brought another long drive. We stopped once in a large village, and because it was Sunday there were churchgoing people in their churchgoing clothes, and they came out singing. We visited a market, where we bought patterned fabric. The sun was dipping by the time we reached northern Kafue National Park. We collected firewood in a low gorge and arrived in near darkness at our campsite. Gavin asked us politely not to help set up camp, as we would only be in the way, so we took a bottle of wine down to the river and watched the stars come out.

If I had to choose one favorite Zambian park, it would be Kafue. The animals were not so different from the animals elsewhere, nor were the trees, but things were somehow especially elegant, as though nature had been in a landscaping mood when she put it all together. We saw our first leopard there, as sensual and spotted and diffident as we’d anticipated. We saw cheetahs. For three days we drove through the hills, and took long afternoons for walking and reading and writing postcards, and slept at night in our tents. Then we drove south half the length of Kafue, arriving at 25-mile-long Lake Iteshi-Teshi. We climbed onto the boulders where the rock hyraxes, or dassies, little mammals with rodent-like features, gathered to sun themselves, and looked across the lake. I have seen many sunset views but none has surpassed that one. Lake Iteshi-Teshi was primeval, like the first day of creation, with hippos, zebras, and one boat: a little canoe making its way across the middle ground like a detail added by a sentimental painter. The air was exquisitely clear and full of peace.

The next day we headed into the nearly abandoned southern part of Kafue. The herds of animals—500 buffalo together, even more impalas, troops of wildebeests—looked surprised by us. We saw a hundred pelicans roosting in an acacia tree, its leaves completely white from their droppings. We followed the turquoise flight of a lilac-breasted roller. Finally we came to a clearing in which the sun focused itself bright, an enchanted place. Beneath a spreading mopani tree, Gavin and Marjorie pitched camp. We watched the moon rise and had honest talks while the fire burned down to firefly embers.

In the morning we drove through more wilds, stopped in Livingstone to shop, and then crossed at Victoria Falls into Zimbabwe. At our hotel there, I found my wallet waiting for me. A worker in Luangwa had found it and managed to reach American Express, which had obtained my itinerary and facilitated delivery. My cash was all there.

That night we put on whatever crumpled but presentable clothes we found in the bottoms of our suitcases, and headed off to the Victoria Falls Hotel for supper. There was a band; there was dancing; we ordered from menus and drank champagne toasts to the bush. When, in the morning, we said good-bye to Gavin and Marjorie, we had that slight pang of an intensity ended, the same feeling I had when I left college, that things might be otherwise and fine but would never be quite like this again.