Thursday, August 27, 2009

Zambia Safari impressions

We’ve now been back a few days after an intensive 3-week trip to Zambia in south-central Africa. My impressions are still fresh but above all it was an authentic, classic safari experience. Everything felt real and genuine, from the greeting at Lusaka International Airport to the treatment we received at the various camps. The management, staff and guides at the various camps were friendly and accommodating, and did everything they could to keep us happy and entertained. But more than that, they seemed to take a genuine interest in us, from our dietary preferences to providing the right kind of adaptor, advising about a wireless internet hotspot, giving timely photographic hints, supplying a special lotion to ward of tsetse flies, and much more. We never ever felt like ‘just another guest’ or visitor – and this carried through to after-dinner conversations which were always lively and fun.

In summary, the trip was everything we had anticipated and more: remote, fantastic camps, excellent guiding, great views of a dizzying variety of mammals, birds and other wildlife, amazing scenic beauty, generally light tourism traffic except around Mfuwe, first class food and drink and seamless transfers between camps and national parks.

Activities were very diverse, ranging from game drives to walking, boating, fishing, observing wildlife from hides, night drives, and two firsts: a romantic private dinner for the two of us at Kapinga Camp on the Busanga Plains and a private lunch on the Zambezi River at Chiawa Camp, with some 'instant friends' we had made (a couple from San Francisco). There we were, drifting downstream on one of the mightiest rivers in Africa, being served sparkling wine and orange juice, and tucking into a delicious meal... What made the lunch even more memorable is the fact that our departure was delayed due to 'elephant interference' at the Chiawa dock. Only in Africa... If I had to pick a favorite all-round camp it has to be Shumba in the Kafue region. What a jewel, the rooms with their views over the Busanga Plains are breathtaking and the camp is being managed at a very high level - it need not take second place to any of the Botswana Premier Camps.

There were many many highlights. 6 (yes six!) sitatunga at Kapinga, a fantastic leopard & cub on a kill sighting ex Shumba, amazing lion viewing at Lufupa, predators galore in the Kaingo and Nsefu area, exceptional guiding at Kalamu (I'd walk into elephants any time with Petros and Luckson is one of the best all-round guides I have ever seen in action) and a though-provoking visit to a village near Kalamu. I am still sorting through the emotions I felt upon observing such staggering poverty on the one hand, and such 'joie de vivre' displayed by the many kids we met in the village. 'What is your name', 'how are you', 'take my picture'... All they wanted from us (other than for us to take their pictures) was a container to carry water to school. Not money, not food, just a container to carry fresh water.

This is Zambia – 20 little dusty kids pressing up against you to scan the camera playback screen for their likeness, exclaiming in delight when they saw themselves, or hamming it up with their friends for the next pic. No sullen faces negotiating payment for photographs, just pure, unadulterated joy in the face of seemingly overwhelming social problems.

As far as the tourism infrastructure goes, for a relatively small player on the African safari scene, we were impressed with how smoothly everything went. Over the space of 21 days, we experienced just one delay of more than 2 hours, all the other flights and transfers were right on time or within minutes of the scheduled times. Better than the USA. The road network inside the reserves was mostly adequate with some rough spots in Kafue, courtesy of hippo that seem to leave their deep footprint indentations on every square meter of muddy ground in the wet season. Certainly we’ve seen worse roads, such as in parts of the Selous Game Reserve in Southern Tanzania.

With one or two minor exceptions everything in the camps worked: water was warm when it needed to be (the solar water heaters are amazingly effective!) the toilets flushed, there were adequate battery recharging facilities, and laundry was done at no extra charge. Kathleen did have a large hole burnt into one of her synthetic safari pants: it is probably best to let the staff know not to iron certain items. We did have an issue with lighting at one of the smaller bush camps but it is being attended to.

The food and catering in general were of very high standard, comparable with the best we have seen elsewhere. My special dietary request (vegan meals) was handled without a fuss, and it was simply a delight to enjoy such a wide variety of foods, including a few local specialties such as nshima, at the various camps. Fresh vegetables and salads, the most delicious home-made breads, creative desserts, baked goods, lots of legumes and grains, there was plenty there for even the most discerning palate. Omnivores would do pretty well too as there is invariably some kind of meat, chicken and occasionally seafood on the daily menu, plus of course eggs to order for brunch, several varieties of cheese, preserves and more. If there is one thing that is a given on safari, it is that guests are always well fed!

By and large insects were not too much of a problem, but Zambia is certainly a country for which one needs to take adequate protection: take your Malarone, apply mosquito repellant regularly, and wear long-sleeved shirts around dawn and dusk and in areas where tsetse flies are active during the warmer hours of the day. Tsetse flies were marginally bothersome in the Lufupa woodlands, but were effectively warded off with a lotion of Dettol mixed with water and Johnson’s Baby Oil. Tsetses seem to have been just about wiped out in the central and Nsefu areas of the South Luangwa, no problems there. At Kalamu Lagoon Camp, we really had to duck and dive to escape them, and in the warmer months of the year this could certainly be a problem. We hope that additional measures to combat them will be effective.

The 4-wheel drive vehicles were all spotless and in good condition, with ample leg room and unobstructed views. Most of the camps made use of a driver-guide plus a spotter/assistant, often a trainee guide. Predominantly men, with one notably exception: Freya, a female American guide at Kaingo. And excellent she was too! We cannot say enough about the quality of the guiding: it was as good as we had experienced anywhere in
Africa, and in some instances the best ever. Just one or two of the guides (for just a couple of game drives) could be described as ‘okay’, all the others were exceptional and some were a revelation. Like good sports commentators, the best guides anticipate and predict, beyond just reporting and interpreting. We experienced many instances of this, for example at Chindeni when our guide Peter saw ‘active’ hyenas and said that we should be on the lookout for leopards. We spotted a leopard – with its cub feeding on an impala carcass in a tree – barely a minute or two later.

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