HISTORY repeats itself. The first time I visited Zambia’s national parks I was fairly new to safari life and afraid of elephant; a bit phobic, in fact – a condition induced by a combination of my inexperience and the macho mischief of a gung-ho guide. Two years earlier, in Zimbabwe, our little party of bush trekkers got too close to a choleric bull, and as he saw us off with a mock charge our young guide, having got us into this situation, told us to run for cover. That night, when I heard elephant trashing the trees around our camp, I discovered a seedling of dread had been planted.
The dread remained over my next few safaris until I received an intensive course of elephant therapy at a place called Potato Bush in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. This small rustic camp overlooked the epic river, where groves of winterthorn and shallow channels were food, drink and hydrotherapy spa to the local elephant population. They were everywhere – scratching their backs on tree trunks, snacking on seed pods, wallowing in water, comfortable with their human neighbours as long as we didn’t take them by surprise and invade their space.
On my first morning I woke to gentle rustling and found a bull elephant standing at the end of my bed. Well, maybe not quite, but no more than a few feet from my open-fronted chalet. His bulk filled the view, with nothing between us but a wooden rail. As he hoovered up seed pods I sat up cautiously, and looked into his calm eye. It seemed, for a moment, as if we knew each other for what we were: one small vulnerable creature and one large vulnerable creature who wished each other no harm. Then, moving delicately, taking his time, eating as he went, he steered his great, bone-crushing mass away.
I was cured.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m on my fifth visit to Lower Zambezi National Park, and I’m in the same spot on the edge of the Zambezi. The camp is still small, still adventurous but rather more comfortable. It has new owners and a new name: Old Mondoro (after a white lion of local legend) and now belongs to the trail-blazing Cumings family, pioneers of the park’s safari industry, operators of its first concession, Chiawa, and founder members of its conservation body. My daughter and I are on a two-stage safari: three days at Old Mondoro, their eight-bed bush camp, and 24 hours at Chiawa, their 16-bed flagship camp.
Catherine and I have arrived in time for lunch and a siesta, and take a doze on our deck. Winterthorn seed pods are again in season and again I’m wakened by gentle rustling. Yes, he’s back. Might even be the same one, given the longevity of elephant: little more than five feet from my own propped-up feet. As I reach for my camera Old Scratchy. a regular visitor, acknowledges me with a relaxed flick of an ear.
The Lower Zambezi valley is one of my favourite places in the world. Here the river idles its way across a rift in the earth’s crust among islands clumped with buffalo, hippo and elephant. Its national park, prime, game-rich wilderness, is contained between the shapely hills of the Zambezi escarpment and over 70 miles of river frontage. It has never failed to provide me with memorable game-viewing; and of its handful of camps, I have personal reasons to favour Chiawa and Old Mondoro over the others. On my first visit to Chiawa I met a couple of newly-weds: Grant Cumings and his Glaswegian wife Lynsey, who lived the dream and married one of Africa’s top safari guides.
We’ve become friends. I’ve followed their fortunes, including the birth of their “bush babies”, Scott and Lauren, now at school in Lusaka but regular visitors to Lynsey’s family in Glasgow. I also have Grant to thank for putting me on the trail of Mary Livingstone’s grave at Chupanga, downriver in Mozambique – a trail which led to a book. Since then the Cumings have steered Chiawa towards “Best in Africa” awards for the excellence of its guiding and hospitality, and turned Old Mondoro into a satellite which combines high levels of catering and comfort without sacrificing its intimacy with the bush.
The two camps are an hour’s boat transfer apart, and there’s often lion traffic between them, with territorial scraps between competing bachelor males; none of whom, during our visit, is strong enough to depose the resident male of Chiawa’s eight-strong pride. We see them all, and it’s all-action. At Old Mondoro we watch one invading male turn tail and swim across a channel to escape the opposition. We see another guarding a buffalo kill until he’s greeted by his big brother whose roars – friend or foe? – make the bush vibrate. We join five hyenas and a tree-load of vultures at a bush which conceals yet another lion, this one hoarding a hippo carcase. And on a thrilling night drive at Chiawa an inter-species war breaks out. “Hope we don’t become collateral damage,” says Catherine, as two furious elephant mothers, trumpeting a Last Judgement to any threat to their calves, chase four female lions into the path of our vehicle.
A feast of elephant and lion but a famine of leopard. There have been record sightings of nine leopards in one day at Chiawa, but until now – not just here but throughout regular safaris in southern and East Africa – I’ve been leopard-starved. Only once have I seen the cat at close quarters, and he was a leopard who had trapped himself in a cage baited for a troublesome crocodile at Kariba airport.
On this trip my famine ends. Over four days I see more spots in front of my eyes than the skimpy sum which have danced fleetingly, usually at night, in all my past safaris. From the moment we fly into Jeki airstrip the exquisite cats begin flaunting themselves in broad daylight: leopard taking the air outside her den, guarding her concealed cub; leopard at his morning toilet, having a pooh; leopard stalking impala in the brief, plum-coloured twilight; leopard chilling in a tree, before climbing down and strolling past our vehicle with a sidelong glance which says, “ I know you’re there, and that’s ok, but don’t mess with me.” Five close encounters in all, and the best is the last.
At Chiawa our morning game drive (will we ever tire of the purity of the African dawn, which seems to re-make the world in an image of Eden?) begins uneventfully, with veteran guide Boaz Chizuwa in charge. The bush is relaxed but preoccupied as the day’s feeding programme gets underway: browsing elephant, grazing antelope and buffalo, busy bee-eaters. Then, an explosion of noise: the raucous sound of baboon voices – a cacophony of furious screams, barks and chatter aimed not merely to warn but to intimidate. The troop has cornered as leopard.
We follow the noise; the outbursts are followed by eerie silence. On the edge of a dambo, a watery depression, we park near a huge stand of combretum surrounded by baboons, including an agitated mother clutching her infant. We can see nothing in the thicket but Boaz says confidently, the leopard is in there. Let’s wait for a bit.”
Fifteen minutes pass in silence. The baboons shift watchfully on their buttocks but nothing else moves. We have interrupted a stand-off which might last all morning, so drive on. But Boaz hasn’t given up. When again we hear an eruption of baboon aggression he circles the dambo to approach the combretum from another angle. This time we can see that one of the big male baboons – probably the troop leader – is bleeding heavily from his forearm.
This time we can also see the leopard. Panting with stress she creeps from the thicket, using our vehicle as cover, hugging its chassis as we inch beside her. We hold our breaths. “I could have touched her,” says Catherine later. We watch her stretch her limbs against a termite mound, while the baboons keep their distance. We escort her to the dambo where she crouches to drink. “Maybe we’re adding to her stress, “ I suggest to Boaz.
“No, she feels safe near us. We have helped her escape. Leopards predate on baboons but a powerful troop can kill a leopard if they act together.”
She looks young and pregnant and is beautiful beyond words. We feel moved by our part in her liberation. Are we taking sides? The hunter and the hunted: it’s impossible not to take sides. If the baboon mother and her infant had been cornered by the cat I would have willed their escape, too.
Travel notes: Best route to Lusaka, the Zambian capital, is with Emirates from Glasgow via Dubai, with good connections both ways. For prices and accommodation at Chiawa and Old Mondoro contact firstname.lastname@example.org, who will book the short domestic flights to Lower Zambezi National Park, and any other camps. More information: www.chiawa.com.
Julie Davidson’s book Looking for Mrs Livingstone (St Andrew Press) includes more of her travels in the Lower Zambezi valley.