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'a zambian safari' 
by mark donaldson 

published by 'the scotsman' newspaper - 05/11/2000

Dr David Livingstone – the famous Scot from Blantyre - was the first person to write about the beauty of Zambia nearly 150 years ago.  The powerful character of the place moved him so much when he traversed the valley in December 1866 that he wrote, “I will make this beautiful land better known to men that it may become one of their haunts.  It is impossible to describe its luxuriance”.  These days, visitors returning from Zambia echo his words – yet it continues to be bypassed on the mass tourist trail of Africa.

This is the land of the the wild Zambezi River - the planet’s biggest waterfall - a profusion of birds, abundant wildlife, and raw, pulsating wilderness - all in one friendly country.  Where else in the world can you gaze out onto the riverbank listening to wildlife when waking up in the morning?  And, in watching the sunrise, witness the distant spectacle of the shadows of elephants and hippos ensconced together in shallow water.

Welcome to the picturesque Nsefu camp situated on the banks of the Luangwa River in Eastern Zambia; forget everything you may have heard about African safaris, this is an experience that will stay with you forever.  Nsefu is one of three Robin Pope-owned safari camps in South Luangwa National Park offering a prime opportunity to experience the original walking safari.

A 90-minute flight from the nations’ capital, Lusaka, to Mfuwe International airport and transportation to the camp is all that is required to begin the holiday of a lifetime.  The Nsefu camp, established in 1951, is now the oldest camp in South Luangwa Valley.  Ownership was transferred to Robin Pope – one of Zambia’s best safari guides – in 1998 and work was immediately carried out to give the location a new lease of life. 

Sunset at Nsefu

For all that you are in them middle of nowhere, roughing it is not an option.  The old wooden verandas have been replaced, while each of the eight elegant guest cottages has its own bathroom.  The beds have been raised to give an even better view of the riverbank (heaven forbid you should strain yourself whilst enjoying the view) with mosquito nets to prevent unwanted guests.

Despite the luxuries, which are indeed very welcome, this is the real Africa – you are surrounded by unspoilt terrain and the bush that has lain untouched for thousands of years, barring the everyday wildlife.  You may think it has all been shown on television, but prepare to be amazed when beasts are so close you can see the whites of their eyes.

Here are 59 different animals and more than 400 different birds – every turn of the head offering a gasp-making vision.  The Zambian national bird – the fish eagle – is a common, but stunning sighting.  Lions, so majestic in the flesh, roam around the land with impala, giraffes and baboons, while elephants, crocodiles, hippopotami and buffalo can all be seen near the water’s edge.  Humans, so often the most-seen creatures on a safari tour, are rarely seen here.

'You looking at me?'

Time spent observing and studying a natural paradise like this on the Luangwa River is a rare privilege.    You are at least two hours drive from any real human civilisation, surrounded by land as nature intended it.  The steady trickle of visitors to this glorious part of the world over the years have witnessed time stand still – you’re seeing pretty much the same landscape as would have met travellers of the mid 1900s. 

In an era when true wilderness is becoming ever more rare, this area of the world retains the pristine qualities that so impressed Livingstone.  As a result, the Valley has begun attracting keen interest from the tourist industry.  It is also the subject of a number of important and innovative conservation initiatives.

One of these projects, the Kawaza village experience, is relatively new on the itinerary of many travellers, and its success benefits many aspects of the community.  Kawaza is one of a large group of Kunda tribal villages comprising the chiefdom of Nsefu, lying on the eastern perimeter of the South Luangwa National Park. 

In November 2000 this tiny village won the prestigious Silver Otter Award form the British Guild of Travel Writers.  Kawaza Village was honoured for the best international tourist project, beating a list of worldwide entries.  The home stay is a joint project set up by the people of Nsefu with the support of Robin Pope.  You stay in a traditional roundhouse complete with thatched roof - built with a framework of cane covered with mud.  During the day, visitors to the village get the chance to share in activities as locals go about their daily lives, collecting firewood, making sorghum beer and learning all about the trees and their traditional uses.

Life in Kawaza Village

Everything has to be done before darkness falls, including the preparation of the evening meal, which sometimes include chasing the chickens that will end up on a plate that night.  There’s no rest for these people, who are involved in manual labour from sunrise to sunset, but I feel they would not swap their idyllic lifestyle with anyone.

After the evening meal the women of the village participate in a question and answer session, during which it became obvious that they were as intrigued by our Western ways as we were about their lifestyle.  We swapped tales about our daily lives, although Constantino, our translator, had a fairly hard task trying to make them understand our occupations.  Trying to explain the work of a radio journalist is not easy when they live without most of the things we take for granted, like electricity.

Then it was back to the camp for the final day, which consisted of one last walk, game drive and sunset safari.  That final game drive held a surprise around the final corner of the final game drive.  We stopped off at an idyllic location, home to a plethora of wildlife including several lion cubs and baby elephants – all no more than a stone’s throw from us.  To add to this pictorial delight, our hosts had laid on the most fantastic buffet on a table by the edge of the riverbank.

The customary sundowners of beer, whiskey, gin and champagne stood to attention on a starched tablecloth in the last glow of the day’s sunlight.  It was our final night in paradise before the stark reality of life back home.  And despite the last colour fading from the heavens, the yelp of a hyena and the stirring call of a nightjar signified that the bush does not sleep, as the lights of the lodge beckoned us to a comfortable bed.

Bedtime at Nsefu!

Slipping into contented sleep, you know the Luangwa fulfils its promise of a rich African experience that is difficult to surpass.  Zambia may currently be regarded as “Africa’s undiscovered gem”, but the guidebooks will soon be looking for another phrase - as numerous travellers from all over the World discover the delights of the ‘real’ Africa.

mark donaldson - november 2000

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