Zambia, a place we had heard so much about and yet oddly had never visited before. Could it live up to our expectations? Could it compete with some of our other safari favourites?
We landed in Mfuwe, 3 planes in and one more short hop to go… everyone else was being herded off to their transfer vehicles but we were very pleased to be hopping on to our Cessna 210 for the very quick 15 minute flight to Tafika. Once the plane was secured and we were in our safari vehicle, taking our first breaths of hot, grassy, sun-baked air, we looked at each other and smiled. Here we were, back in Africa again, another adventure to be had. Could life get any sweeter?
Tafika welcomed us with open arms, a whole family of smiles. A late lunch awaited us, a mouth-watering selection of fresh salads straight from the garden whilst overlooking the Luangwa, shared with owners Carol and John (they host breakfast and lunch every day, what a family welcome). Time for a quick change and off on our first game drive.
Wild dog was our first sighting, right on the road. The Luangwa River provided such a beautiful backdrop, we were happy just to potter along its banks when the wild dog obliged us by taking their hunt to the river’s edge. The hyenas joined in the rush but it was all a non event in the end with the impala scaling the steep river banks and escaping. What a start!
Sundowners beckoned before the drive back to the lodge with leopard wandering towards us, genet looking on and, the icing on the cake, not a radio sound to be heard. Remote vehicles do have radios but they are never switched on, except for emergencies, and each guide and tracker find their own wildlife. This makes each game drive unique and gives a real sense of adventure providing plenty of tales to tell when you return to the lodge for dinner. Dinner is hosted with one or two of the management team or guides which really adds to the family feel and inclusiveness. Guests really are treated as part of the family and are always mixing with someone new who has different stories to share.
Up early, as always, and off for a few days to the walking camps. We canoed across the Luangwa and scrambled up a hippo path emerging on to the bank to start our walk. We didn’t see a vehicle track or pathway during our time, this is a pristine, walking only area where no vehicle is to be seen or heard. Our luggage and indeed the entirety of each of the 2 walking camps, Chikoko Camp and Crocodile Camp, are carried across the river to this virgin terrain each year. We kept looking at not only the enormous but heavy dining table in awe as to how that was carried across. We walked for about 4 hours that first morning, we saw plenty of game and wildlife with lots of fun facts learned along the way. The stillness, apart from the crunch underfoot, was intoxicating and our tea bearer, usually a learner guide, spotted a beautiful, giant eagle owl in the dense foliage of a large leadwood tree.
The days quickly developed a wonderful sense of rhythm as we switched off from the outside world. Plenty of time to just be, to drink in the landscape, admire the wide skies above and swap stories with fellow guests we met in camp. The walks provided plenty of adrenalin, being so close to lion on foot had us on full alert and whilst others had spotted leopard, we were content with elephants and eagles.
Chikoko Camp overlooks a dry river bed with just 3 rooms, each with an open, raised bedroom, ideally situated for spotting game across the plains. Crocodile Camp overlooks a beautiful vlei, again with 3 rooms with wide open windows for spotting anything passing by. Our room had a strategically placed hammock just in front of it which was very relaxing watching game come up to the small waterhole whilst swaying gently from side to side.
After two nights away, we returned to Tafika, which felt like a busy hub by comparison. Tafika only has 5 rooms but with its extensive vegetable and fruit gardens and all the staff based there, it definitely has its own livelier vibe, by comparison at least.
Mwaleshi and North Luangwa now beckoned and what a treat, 2 nights in the same place – as seasoned fam trip organisers, we truly appreciated what a luxury this was! Tom flew us up in the Cessna, following the course of the Luangwa River and showed us the site of the brand new camp opening in 2019, at the confluence of the Luangwa and Mwaleshi Rivers. We were really excited to be in this truly remote region. Mwaleshi is well and truly off the beaten track with no chance of meeting another soul. It feels remote, it feels wild and it completely stole our hearts. As we waded through the shallow river to join fellow guests on our first walk, we revelled in the feel of the water and sand between our toes, so deliciously cool. Thoughtfully laid out towels awaited our arrival on the other side of the bank and, with feet dried, we were off, our fellow walkers having already seen wild dog and lions. That morning, they had coined the acronym ABL, something about Another B…. Lion – can you ever have too much of a good thing?
Our guide, Brent, had his own quiet way and sense of stillness in sharing the beauty of this land and what a remarkable privilege it was to be there. We were treated to a wide variety of birdlife and game that morning and, as we re-crossed the river and arrived at camp, we felt that we had had a sense of the safari experience as it must have been for the early adventurers, so untouched and remote was this area. After another deliciously light and fresh lunch provided from the Tafika gardens, we went for a dip in the river. It is fairly shallow but if you try hard, you can just about immerse your shoulders and by the afternoon, the water is not quite as refreshing but more like a warm bath. Time for a quick change before afternoon tea and more walking adventures. There is a vehicle based at Camp but this is purely for transfers to and from the airstrip and to discover further afield to ensure that you do not repeat walks in/out of camp, but it has the added bonus of carrying chilled sundowners. A first for us – after another adventurous walk, our sundowners were served on a small sand bank in the middle of the river with a large log providing ample seating for everyone. What a spectacular and unique place for a G&T.
Our second day topped all our walking to date. Lions were spotted across the river. They had seen us of course so we walked far beyond the eye line of the large male before crossing the river, doubling back in a huge arc to go beyond where they were relaxing atop the river bank. We grew quieter, closer and, with nerves jangling, we crept forward to where they were. They spotted us and withdrew into the bushes apart from a cub which clambered up a tree trunk and watched us from just 50 metres away. Then silence. They were gone. Or were they watching us? Brent suggested that we all sit down to listen and wait. I am sure they could hear our heartbeats, so loud were they, but that 10 minutes will stay with me for the rest of my days. We waited. The sun was going down. How much longer could we or should we wait? Eventually we withdrew and returned to the river’s edge to wade across. And there, literally 200 metres to our right, one of the lioness’ had decided to do the same thing. With long laps of her tongue, she drank from the river and, with our eyes constantly on her, we crossed the river. In the next few minutes, dusk came quickly and the river separating us suddenly became very important. It was getting dark but in the spotlight and just a few metres from where we had been, we saw the large pride as one by one, they came down to the river to drink. They were just a short distance away but now that the river separated us and with a G&T safely in hand, we could relax and enjoy the adventure as the adrenalin started to ease away.
We had plenty to celebrate that evening in camp as we dined under the stars. We heard, rather than saw, the hippo plod its way past the camp in search of food upstream and as the candles flickered, we dreamed of staying longer. But return we did to the hubbub of Tafika; a last cycle ride with John and a last game drive to see the infamous leopards of the South Luangwa. Tafika was like returning home to the welcome and smiles of everyone; Heather, the Camp Manager, John and Carol, the owners, Brian, head guide with many a tale to tell, Nick and Jen, starting their adventure at Tafika and continuing the family vibe. The most smiley and friendly team of guides, porters, tailors, chefs, waiters and gardeners you’ll ever meet. Thank you to you all, we cherished our time with you and hope to send you many, many more guests.
Did the Luangwa Valley live up to its name? You bet it did. We have another firm favourite to add to our list, what safari flirts we are.