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I’ve lengthily extolled the virtues of taking to the bush on foot but today I discovered a new pleasure; cruising the banks of a river by canoe. Part way through a long safari and at the end of a tiring day of travelling, I was feeling a little fraught and probably slightly ambivalent about venturing out within an hour of arriving at a new place...my beautiful tented room at the Chongwe River Camp and its quite extraordinary view was calling. The Chongwe River is a tributary of the mighty Zambezi at the point where the Zambezi National Park borders the Chongwe GMA (Game Management Area). Winding gently down from the ripples of the escarpment, the Chongwe is a pretty cool little spot. At this time of day it is particularly attractive as the light softens and the river takes on the colours of the trees and sky. It’s hard not to concede to such an all-encompassing peace and quiet. Fortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to nod off (which may have led to a disappointing capsize and a humiliating return to camp). There was no shortage of things to see on our gentle late afternoon paddle. We floated past steep sandy banks in which white-fronted and carmine bee-eaters throng by the thousands to make their nests at different times of the year. A small breeding herd of elephant ventured down within fifty metres or so, with a tiny calf no more than a couple of months old. The assorted nostrils, eyes and ears of a pod of hippo watched our progress with interest but didn’t seem inclined to dispossess us of our transport, likewise the couple of crocs and a terrapin. As the sun dipped below the escarpment, a giant eagle owl called from a large tree and we witnessed the aerial displays of a number of different species of kingfisher and a multitude of other water birds. A fish eagle even gave us a private fly-by. Troops of vervet monkeys and baboons watched us watching them. I think that canoeing makes a great change from being bounced around in a vehicle with the noise of the engine and the dust which can get to even the most seasoned safari veteran after a while. The quiet, the quality of light on the water at that time of day and just the gentle sounds of nature make you naturally want to switch to a lower gear, cease the chatter and just absorb the world around with heightened senses. Click here for a little video...and pay attention to the sounds! Incidentally, as I write this now, I am sitting in my room in Chongwe listening to a veritable cacophony of sound; lions roaring not far away, a hippo grazing about five metres from my room (I can see him by torchlight), an entire pack of hyena whooping over the river in Zimbabwe and all the other unidentified sounds of the African night....not sure there’s much sleep on the cards tonight!
I think I may have to redefine my own personal idea of luxury. “Luxury” may have to shed the connotations of king-size beds in favour of a bedroll under a mosquito net. I may need to do away with haute cuisine and replace it with hot tea, vaguely smoky from the camp-fire, drunk from a tin mug with bare feet in the sand as the sun paints the sky with a palette of colour. I’ll definitely swap satellite TV for the night-time entertainment provided by leopard calling just a few hundred metres from camp, elephant moving by in the starlight and lion roaring in the distance.
Sound good? This morning I woke up after a night spent in the Luwi Riverbed in South Luangwa National Park. After setting out for a two hour walk from Nsolo Camp yesterday afternoon, we found our supplies had been neatly left for us in a broad bend of the sandy river. As the sun went down, my guide Innocent, scout Batwell, camp chef Jason and myself, unrolled our bedrolls and hung mosquito nets over sticks we found in the riverbed. The little wooden box crowned with a toilet seat was discreetly positioned behind a large hunk of driftwood...I regarded this a little dubiously...it looked like the kind of arrangement to induce stage fright.
The camp-fire was built swiftly and soon we were sitting around it and watching as Jason started to prepare chicken, foil-covered potatoes and maize meal with a tomato and onion relish. The lingering dusk gave way to wall-to-wall sky lit by a Cheshire-cat moon and masses of stars. The creatures of the night began to call all around us; a leopard sawed only a few hundred metres from camp. Somehow, simple meals become the best you’ve ever tasted when prepared and enjoyed in such a magical place. It was with deep contentment that I let my feet burrow into the soft sand and traded wildlife stories with the lads.
Feeling weary after long hours walking in the bush, I crawled between the crisp sheets and toasty blankets of my bedroll and enjoyed the view of the stars. The men sat around the fire quietly chatting and laughing. Every now and then one of them would get up and stoke one of the fires that surrounded us, letting any passing beasties know that this was a no-go area. Batwell spends much of his time on patrol and is used to waking up automatically every half hour or so. I slept in spells too, tuned in to the orchestra of night noises.
I woke as the sun rose and joined Jason by the fire as he brewed tea and toasted bread. Over breakfast, we shared stories of what we’d heard during the night. Lions had been calling in the distance and a herd of elephant crossed the river just below the camp-site. A hyena had ventured close to investigate our leftovers and Batwell and Jason had chased it away with a flaming log.
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is a raw African safari experience which will put everything you thought about camping in a new light. Click here for a short video interview with my guide, Innocent, all about the sleepout.
After my micro-light flight of yesterday, I packed a small backpack and crossed the Luangwa River in a large canoe to begin my trek on foot to my next destination. Batwell, the game scout accompanied me to make sure that I didn’t get flattened by any animals and they remained safe from any stupidity on my part. Impressively equipped with some very sturdy boots and a rifle, his calm demeanour and eagle eyes gave me confidence that he would live up to the task. My guide, Isaac, is a 35 year veteran of the Luangwa Valley and his vintage makes him one of the most experienced here. Our little crocodile-formation was brought up by Justin the tea-bearer (they really are called that!) who was really the most important member of the group. We set off a little later than usual and so walked through a fairly warm part of the day. Nevertheless, I was surprised and pleased by the amount we saw. Teak and mahogany lined riverbeds gave onto open vleis and thicker bush, the constantly changing habitats always providing something interesting to ponder on. The bush is quiet but never silent and bird calls, the sharp alarm of puku and honk of hippopotamus was audible all around. We picked our way along routes established by elephant and other animals...literally walking in their footsteps. Walking is just such a pleasure and sights that may be banal from a vehicle take on a new substance when you’re on your own two pegs. Just off the boat, we came across an enormous monitor lizard with fresh injuries caused by a leopard. Later on we startled a small herd of zebra which abruptly fled in panic and suddenly our eyes, ears and noses were filled with pounding hooves, dust and a confusion of stripes as they galloped within a few metres of us. An aroused male puku almost ran us over, so intent was he on the shapely backside of the female he was pursuing, shying wide at the last minute. We had the pleasure of walking quietly onto a young bull elephant drinking in the shade, thrillingly unaware of our presence. Kingfishers, saddle-billed storks, wood-hoopoes, a martial eagle and spoonbills were amongst a true cocktail of birds. With a stop-off for a welcome cup of tea, our walk to the Chikoko Bushcamp took around four hours. The walking is easy and the pace gentle so you don’t have to be a marathon-runner to enjoy it, just reasonably fit with comfortable shoes and a passion for the outdoors. It is a completely different experience from driving, as I am reminded every time I go bipedal, and the best calories ever spent! Click here for a little video tour of my room at the Chikoko Bushcamp.
Jean du Plessis, who runs these walking safaris in the Serengeti has a couple of great Easter safaris planned in April this year. The safaris are mobile, using the light mobile camp in this film, and take in the Serengeti, Gol Mountains, the Ngorongoro Highlands and Lake Manyara. This will offer a mixture of walking and some exceptional game areas. 10 days on safari starts at £2200 per person based on a group of 4. Drop us an email if you'd like to hear more.
You'll have to excuse a shaky camera, but hopefully this little film will go someway to explaining why we think Southern Loliondo and the eastern edges of the Serengeti are amongst the most beautiful places in Africa...