Zambia

25 March – 11 April 2013

We’ve often been asked which country had been our favourite so far. The honest answer was always that we couldn’t choose as each has had its own unique highlights. However, we’d have to say that if we were pushed, Zambia would be right up there.

We’d ummed and ahhed before heading into Zambia whether to go to South Luangwa National Park. We’d heard great things about it, but also that the roads can be really bad in the rainy season. In the end we decided to head out that way and check on the conditions before making a final decision. Boy are we glad we did! Not only were the roads fine, we soon realised that it had a very special feel about it.

We stayed at the Croc Valley Camp which has a beautiful setting right on the river. In fact, we liked it so much we went from our original plan of two nights to eventually staying for seven! The park also played its part in persuading us as it’s one of few parks that allows night game drives, albeit only if you’re with a guided tour after 6pm.

We’d been warned by Louis, one of the owners, to be careful at night as they can get various animals in the camp. Karen had her first experience of this on the very first night when she got up for a pee … shining the torch around before fully coming down the ladder she was greeted by a hippo munching away not far from the car! Luckily it was far more interested in munching than trampling innocent overlanders, so all was well.

We’d also been warned about the cheeky vervet monkeys and baboons stealing anything left unattended, particularly food. Despite our best efforts, we found that they can be pretty stealth and turning our backs for just a few seconds resulted in the loss of a loaf of bread, a tomato and an onion! Marcello did manage to scare them enough to drop the bread, but we didn’t really fancy it after they’d had their paws on it! (Vervets 3: Marcello 1.) In fact, they were so cheeky that one of the vervets jumped on the car to look through the windscreen to see what might be on offer. After spying some of our food in a crate on top of the fridge it moved round to hang off the side window which was opened a crack. You could practically hear the cogs turning as it was trying to figure out how it could get in to get to the food. So close but yet so far!

In our time at South Luangwa we went on six game drives. On our first we went in Charlie and saw most of the usual suspects, including a close encounter with a bull elephant who was very curious about us. Then that afternoon we went with the lodge’s guide in the hope that we would get our first leopard sighting after the sun had gone down. We’d heard that the chance of seeing leopard in this park was about as good as it gets as the numbers are quite high, so we were full of anticipation. Luckily for us we weren’t disappointed. As we were driving along in the dark, the spotter was shining a search light back and forth, looking for the tell-tale sign of nocturnal eyes reflecting back at him. After a while the guide suddenly stopped and reversed: hiding right back in the undergrowth we got our first glimpse of a leopard. It was pretty hard to see even when we got close, so it goes to show how good they are at spotting that they saw it whilst diving past. After a while the leopard got up and moved on, but we then saw a hyena in the grass. It turned and growled at the leopard as it walked close by and we soon saw why as it had stolen the leopard’s kill. Brave hyena.

We were very excited to have seen leopard, but at the same time wished that we’d had a clearer view (yup, very greedy). Our prayers were answered as not long after this we drove down towards a river and there on the other side was another leopard weighing up its options for crossing over whilst avoiding any crocs. It was fascinating watching it pacing up and down along the river bank, giving us a fantastic opportunity to observe it. Then it picked its spot and with amazing grace and ease, sprung high into the air and across the water. It was now a lot closer and in the next door 4×4’s headlights, so we got a really close up view of it. Breathtaking. To see its markings so clearly was something else. Leopard print certainly looks far more striking on a leopard than an East-end chav!

The next day we chilled and started preparing to move on, but the longer the day went on the more we wanted to stay and go into the park again hoping for another sighting, perhaps in the daylight. It was also really nice for Marcello to be on a game drive without having to worry about the road, so it wasn’t long until we’d booked in again for the following day. Again we were incredibly lucky as not long after setting off in the morning we came across one and then two leopards right on the road with the nearby impala giving warning calls to its herd. Luckily for them, the leopards weren’t interested and they soon bounded off and settled in the shade of the undergrowth. It was amazing to have seen them in full daylight and particularly to have seen two of them.

Then, as we drove towards our morning coffee break area we had another sighting: this time of the Windleys (Colin and Diana who we’ve been crossing paths with ever since Nairobi)! It turned out that they were in the camp just next door to us. After coming over to visit later on they decided to join us at Croc Valley the following day and we’d soon all decided to extend our stay so that we were there for Easter.

In our remaining game drives we were treated to another two leopard sightings in the daylight meaning we’d seen leopard on four out of six game drives. Incredible. On one of these occasions two brother cubs were playing around chasing each other in the undergrowth and up a tree. In the other one of these cubs was just chilling under a bush in the afternoon sun. Having seen these beautiful cats on several occasions was truly special and we felt very privileged. We also shouldn’t forget to mention other experiences that came to make this our favourite park to date: buffalo taking a mud bath, many beautiful birds, a few elephants coming close to charging our vehicle and giving us a warning trumpet, seeing very young baby elephants (who were still learning how to use their trunks properly) and hippos, puku (who are only found in certain parts of Africa), genet, elephant shrew, mongoose … the list goes on.

We also had another surprise while we were chilling one afternoon. We heard a car pulling up and hoot and saw that it was a white Landie. We immediately realised that it was the English boys we’d met in Aswan and hadn’t seen since Sudan. It was great to see them again after such a long time and to catch up on their experiences since then.

The fact that we stayed at Croc Valley/South Luangwa for so long goes to show how much we enjoyed it. The setting, the wildlife, the hospitality of Louis and Charl the owners, meeting lovely people like Katie (who was over from England for the holidays and helping out) and bumping into old friends made it really special and it’s right up there on our list of places to come back to.

As we’d delayed our stay so much we decided to put in a long day the next day and drive straight to Lusaka (nearly 12 hours’ drive away). We made it to Pioneer Camp just before dark where we caught up with the boys again. The next morning we headed into Lusaka to do the obligatory stocking up of supplies and were greeted by a pretty contemporary and organised city. We bumped into the boys again in the supermarket and persuaded them to join us at a camp on the Livingstone side of the city called Eureka for a braai that night. We couldn’t believe it when we got there: on driving up to the gate we saw impala, then our first sighting of male greater kudu, then zebra and finally giraffe all wandering around just outside the camp. And this was just outside the capital city!

After a fairly noisy night, where it seemed that half of South Africa was passing through in their 4x4s and offroad trailers, we hit the road again. It’s a long way from Lusaka to Livingstone and we’d heard that Lake Kariba was a nice place to stop on the way, so this was our next destination. We stayed at the Kariba Bush Club which had been recommended to us and it was another lovely camp. It had a great view over the lake, was very peaceful and it provided us with another unique wildlife encounter. As we were getting ready for supper we had impala grazing nearby and then a herd of zebra trotted up. The longer the evening went on, the more they seemed to forget we were there, until they were munching right next to us.

Whilst there Marcello was also very pleased as he managed to get one up on the vervet monkeys: we were watching them chasing each other around (whilst we were keeping an eye on our supplies) and then saw them throwing avocados down from a nearby tree to eat. Marcello decided that this time we were going to mug the vervets and chased them off, commandeering some avos for our supplies. Vervets 3: Marcello 2.

After a relaxing couple of days we drove the rest of the way to Livingstone, excited for our first encounter with Vic Falls. And what a first encounter it was to be as we treated ourselves to an early morning microlight flight. After signing our lives away we donned flight suits to keep us warm and were each strapped in behind our respective pilots. The feeling was incredible: you’re so open to the elements and Karen thought it was probably a bit like flying on a broomstick (although she’s sure Marcello probably thinks she does already at times!). It was a really special way to view the falls, as you get to see all the ravines created by the water in years goneby (the falls have eroded the earth and moved over the years). It was also pretty exciting feeling the bump of turbulence as you flew through the top of the spray of the falls, which rises over 400 metres into the air.

Following our aerial view we went to get up close and personal with the falls. The water is in full flow at this time of year, with 750 million litres of water going over the lip every minute. The spray that is generated by the sheer force of the water can be seen for miles and miles. As we walked along the pathways on the Zambian side we became more familiar with this spray as it soaked us like a heavy rainstorm. A lot of the time it was only the spray we could see, but every now and then, the spray would clear and we got to appreciate the magnitude of the falls in front of us. Nothing really prepares you for the scale and power of this magnificent waterfall. Karen has been to both Niagara and Iguacu previously, but this has to be the most impressive of them all.

After a brief dalliance with the Zimbabwean side of the falls (we turned back after they wanted to charge $55 for a visa for just a few hours), we prepared to hit the road again. We’d been joined again by the Windleys and they’d decided to accompany us along the Caprivi Strip and into Botswana to the Okavango Delta and Chobe. We were sad that our time in Zambia was at an end, but we were leaving with many good memories and plans to return.

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