The Lower Zambezi is the most beautiful place on Earth. I’d also go so far as to say that Zambia has the top three most beautiful locations on this planet – The South Luangwa National Park, The Victoria Falls and The Lower Zambezi National Park, but for me the LZ just pips the other two to the post.
It lies in the south of Zambia, on the border with Zimbabwe, covering just over 4,000 square kilometres of rugged wilderness. Reached by an hour long light aircraft flight from Lusaka airport, soaring over the great Zambezi Escarpment to the little bush runway, named Royal, in the Lower Zambezi National Park. The pilot flies over the dusty strip once to check that the landing is clear of elephants or zebras or any number of other animals who also use it regularly, and once he is happy he puts the plane down on the bumpy red earth. It takes a further hour by car through the dense bush, spotting leaping impala and families of banded mongoose, until we get to the Lower Zambezi River.
There we jump on board a boat, the river’s edge overhung with a thick riverine fringe of ebony and fig trees, passing pods of honking hippos and huge basking crocodiles to get to Chiawa Camp. We are met with welcome refreshments and a moment to catch our breath. Chiawa Camp is something special indeed, but for this blog we are going to focus on her smaller sister. It takes one more hour along the river, where kingfishers flit and saddle billed storks sift through the water, to reach our destination – a beautiful authentic bushcamp that goes by the name of Old Mondoro.
Old Mondoro sits on the banks of the mighty river, beneath the canopy of a magnificent winter thorn woodland. It doesn’t matter what the time of day, beneath the leafy crowns the light is subtle and golden and all the wildlife that passes through looks like it has been sprinkled in fairy dust. Our elegant room is set a little further back, on the edge of a lagoon that is kept fresh by its connection to the river. Elephants come and go, drinking and bathing in the pool. Baboons frolic boldly by the waters edge, despite the crocodile that breaks the surface just in front of them. In the tree to our left, with one scan of our Noctivids we can see a brown hooded kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, Carmine bee-eater and paradise flycatcher all resting within a couple of branches of each other. You hardly need to leave your room. But our guide, Seb, insists there is more he would like to show us.
There have been Mondoros (the local name for lions, the camp’s namesake) spotted down by the dried up river bed. We jump into the safari vehicle and off we go, two huge bull buffalos trundle across our paths, and five minutes later a shout from our spotter in the back notifies that he has spotted the lions. They are doing what lions do best, sleeping beneath a bushy fever tree. Three huge male lions, each with a full mane the colour of their namesakes – Blondie, Blackie and Ginger. They are the local coalition of dominant males, perhaps brothers but certainly cousins, explains Seb. Blondie begins to rouse, and we follow him down to the dried up riverbed where a small water hole still exists. He drinks deeply from the muddy looking water, and shortly after Blackie and Ginger follow suit. After they have quenched their thirst they nuzzle one another, and then flop back onto the sand and fall asleep.
We head off deeper into the magical winter thorn forest and soon we spot a family of warthogs with six of the tiniest piglets imaginable. They are snuffling through the leaf litter, every now and again the mother drops to the floor so that her babies can suckle. Behind them a family of elephants stroll slowly across the back drop, sifting through the seed pods on the floor, picking up the tastiest ones and dropping them delicately into their mouths.
On the other side of the forest a huge sandy plain opens up and two large male kudu with the most spectacular spiralled horns, stride out across the landscape. It is like a painting, with the hills of the escarpment in the distance being softened by the setting sun. We stop for a break, to enjoy a cold drink, some snacks, and to wait for the pinks and oranges of sunset to descend into true darkness. With night comes the most immense starry sky.
We set off on our night safari, in search of the cryptic creatures that only move at dark. Using a red torch light, instead of the usual white light, our spotter moves the torches beam from side to side looking for eye shine. A glint of light and a small creature appears in the darkness – it’s a genet. As it goes back to its foraging, its ears pricking to and fro as it tries to locate any small insects in the grass, I realise I have never seen a genet for so long. Normally when the white light catches them, they either freeze or scarper away. But it seems they don’t even notice the red light, and under it they continue their behaviour as normal.
‘Research has shown that white lights make the animal temporarily blind, vulnerable and unable to function properly,’ explains Seb. ‘Like a human, animals need time to adjust to changes in light. It has been proven that cats eyes take about 35 minutes to recover fully, after only a minute’s exposure to bright light. Many animals don’t see the red spotlight at all, and so they continue to go about their business as if the light was not there. So not only is the red light better for the well being of the animal, it also means you are more likely to witness natural and fascinating animal behaviour on your night drive!’
And as our night drive continues we are witness to all manner of creatures as they go about their nightly errands. A leopard stalks unsuspecting impala, two porcupine cross the road ahead, and then a sight I have never seen before. Long ears, a heavy set body and a pointy nose, ‘It’s like a kangaroo crossed with a hare crossed with a pig!’ exclaims wildlife photographer Luke Massey, for he has never seen one before either! It’s an aardvark! Notoriously secretive and incredibly rare to see we are enjoying a private viewing as our relaxed aardvark searches out termites for dinner. After twenty minutes our rumbling stomachs remind us that it is our dinner time too and so we leave the aardvark to it. What a day! And in the bush, every day promises something different.