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Visiting Zambia for the first time as a young radio journalist-cum-travel writer many years back, I discovered what I today – with all of southern and east Africa in my backpack – still regard as my favourite safari destination.

I found myself laughing at the number of leopards I saw, caught up in a Zambezi river rapid called ‘tumble drier’, dodging ladies of the night in a Lusaka live music venue, and being eye-height with a hippo in a canoe on the Lower Zambezi, while two-metre crocs sunned themselves on the sandbank to the left.

That particular trip had started in Lusaka, meeting a Greek gentleman and his art-collecting wife at their beautiful lodge and nature reserve just outside the city. Fast forward a couple decades and with TribalTourist we visit the new incarnation of that same property, possibly the last word in Lusaka luxury. Ciela Resort

For me however, not forgetting rafting twenty-two turbulent whitewater rapids down below Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river*, the real show had started in South Luangwa National Park (SLNP).

Wildlife, Birds & Marmalade

I imagined that their claws had retracted and they were falling out of the park’s forests of natal mahogany and fig trees. I saw one spotted cat in our vehicle headlights that, in a fit of anthropomorphism, someone had given the name Marmalade, and which I later saw became a star on a BBC wildlife series.

That was followed by three lionesses chasing a leopard up a tree. And relative mountains of hippos the next morning in the Luangwa river of so many meanders, I learnt then that the river had – and apparently still has – the largest population of hippos in Africa (and thereby the world, obviously). Unsurprisingly, once you’ve been there, the South Luangwa remains a favourite for foreign TV crews (a popularity that apparently coincided, says the local bush telegraph, with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen buying a lodge in the park).

This is the world TribalTourist is sharing with its privileged guests. Sufficiently far removed from southern Africa’s busiest hubs, Zambia presents Africa-enthusiasts with the privilege of being transported into the lesser-driven tracks of possibly Africa’s finest wildlife kingdom.

With the giraffe a favourite amongst newcomers to the African bush, it’s useful to note that one of Africa’s four distinct species of the animal – Thornicroft’s giraffe, thought to be a relative of east Africa’s Maasai giraffe – is endemic to the South Luangwa.

Shooting (cameras, not guns) the carmine bee-eaters that nest in the steep, high banks of the Luangwa at sunset – swirling and arcing as they do – leaves you with a moment that will linger for a lifetime. You will find that many of Zambia’s guides’ knowledge of birds and wildlife is as broad as their smiles.

Walking Safaris

Walking with another park legend in the Nsefu sector of the park a while back, we moved through sometimes endless seeming cathedrals of ebony and mahogany trees where primordial scenes played out in shafts of early morning light. Baboons grooming, impala feeding, zebra stallions jousting, and buffalo ‘dagga boys’ – those grumpy old males ejected from the herd – lazily chewing the cud.

Wildlife on such a scale and so relaxed – seen on foot – is a privilege unimagined for the vast majority of people on this planet. And where you sleep keeps you embedded in that magical space.

The park’s bush camps in my experience pretty much set the bar for the notion of ‘rustic luxury’, barefoot in the sand with half reed walls, delicate mosaics and inlaid mirrors – neither a brick nor permanent structure in place, in keeping with TribalTourist’s mission to tread lightly in those environments where it works. And exclusivity . Not gold-taps exclusive, but so very damn beautiful in every other sense of the word.

Using this foundation in walking safaris, TribalTourist has tailored itineraries to suit those guests in search of the real deal in adventure and experience, suggesting that guests spend two to three nights at each camp. Chikoko Tree Camp Chikoko Tree Camp offers unparallel walking safaris for example, is situated eight km upstream from Tafika Tafika Camp, ideal for enjoying the serenity of the bush. In a delightful sequel to my first meeting with Norman Carr, Zambia’s iconic conservationist, I learn that he had first identified the Chikoko trails as some of the finest walking in the park.

A world of learning and experience happens between the camps, easing with the sound of crickets into the comfort and culinary experience at the next camp at the day’s end, where your pillow is in one of the three chalets raised above the ground, like a nest surrounded by the woodland canopy.

A Park is a Park? Not in Zambia

Not all national parks and game reserves are the same. South Africa boasts some stunning wilderness areas, but being a largely settled and economically active country, they are fenced, closed systems. The roughly 9000 ㎢ South Luangwa is an ‘open system’ national park, where there is no fence – as in most of east and southern Africa. Where you know that there are no barriers to prevent migrations and the natural movement of wildlife, like the elephant herd you saw drinking from the river that morning.

Which just maybe was heading west to Angola via Kafue National Park – itself a massive, untamed beast of 22,400km – or south to the Zambezi river. Or to the vast wilderness of North Luangwa National Park, where even seeing a camp is a ‘luxury’. A 40 minute flight from Mfuwe Airport – the gateway to the SLNP – is Mwaleshi Camp. Perched on a scenic bend of the Mwaleshi River, 10km upstream of the confluence with the Luangwa River (the same that kept you company down south) the camp is the next level in delightfully remarkable and rustic.

I once sat around a fire with the camp’s founder, grandson of a titled Englishman* who built a mansion far north after the first world war. Then a seasonal camp, I was offered chocolate slab squares in condensed milk for dessert. You see there are no shops nearby, and that’s probably just as well because after we’d gone to sleep and lights were out, lions had chased a herd of buffalo across the river from the other side and through the camp. With Remote Africa, your hosts, the rustic luxury experience will remain, but the condensed milk will probably be no longer. The Mwaleshi camp remains pretty much the ultimate in off-the-grid exclusive experiences.

There are few roads in this remote area and the majority of activities are done on foot, following existing animal trails. It’s useful to know for concerned travellers like yourselves that elephant got hammered by poachers in this part of the North Luangwa, precisely because of the vast wilderness and limited traffic, whether lodge staff or tourists. So the more visitors that arrive, the more eyes on the ground to deter the bad guys.

And Then Some

Twice the size of the SLNP, seen from above as your plane approaches, the sense of space is surreal. With more room for the wildlife to hide, sightings can nevertheless be very good, with large herds of lechwe and buffalo in the floodplains, alongside the elephants and predators, of which lions are very well represented. There is also excellent birdlife. All seen (and heard) from Musekese Camp, spectacularly perched on the edge of a large lagoon and wetland, a relative haven of pampered luxury far removed from the outside world and other lodges. The ten-bed camp has made a name for itself with expert guiding, exceptional food, and phenomenal wildlife viewing.

Which is pretty much what the 12 Day Wild luxury crowd get when visiting the Lower Zambezi national park, regarded as offering amongst the finest big game wildlife viewing in Africa. Added to an almost unequalled  variety of safari activities – from canoeing and boating safaris to game drives, birding and tiger-fishing – make for a fantastic wildlife spectacle. High densities of elephants gather on the valley floor as the dry season commences – my favourite time for safari – along with large herds of buffalo and antelope, with all the large predators in attendance, lion, leopard and wild dog especially well represented.

All witnessed from the riverbank Kutali and Chula Island camps. With no more than 10 people in camp at once each tent is carefully located for the best possible views across the Zambezi River, the tents boasting high quality linen and mattresses, alongside flushing toilets, running water taps and traditional bucket-showers, to remind you how lucky you are not to be at home.

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