RETURN TO ZAMBIA TRIP REPORT MARCH 2006
On the way back home from our first trip to Zambia, 4 months ago, I thought it would be nice to see the contrast from the dry season to the Emerald Season in Zambia. Living in Hawaii, there’s not much difference in seasons and I wanted to see some change somewhere, and where better than South Luangwa, Zambia? So Rocco put together a 12 night package and 4 months later we were off!
We left Hilo, Hawaii on March 7, stayed 2 days in California visiting friends and family, then off to London where we had an 8 hour layover. We met Kavey, Julian and Mandy (all Fodorites) in Chinatown where we had a nice lunch and compared our African experiences. London was cold and wet and we were a bit jet-lagged but had a nice time meeting everyone.
We flew British Airways from San Francisco to Heathrow, then Heathrow to Lusaka. The seats were o.k. (economy class), first plane was a 747, we got a 2 seat row in the back, second plane was a 767, again 2 seat configuration. My only complaint was the video system. On South African Airlines, they had video on demand where British Airways played the videos at 1 time, so if you woke up in the middle of the movie, you’d have to wait until the movie finished, then they restarted it. The food was good, for airline food, though I think SAA’s food was better as was their service.
We arrived in Lusaka in the morning, was met at the terminal by Zambian Airwaves “Meet and Greet” service, was whisked through immigration, got our Mfuwe tickets and had a short wait for our flight. The plane was an 18 seater, not too comfortable, but the flight was only 1 hour 10 minutes.
Overall, the trip was great! The landscape was green and lush, the river was full when we arrived, the skies bright blue and the weather was hot. During the day it was between 85-96F and at night it was usually 75F, not much different than in October. We saw a lot of game, though it was more spread out, the elephants seemed to only come out in the afternoon, there were more zebras, giraffes, lions and hippos this trip, and we did see 4 leopards, but no dogs! There were a lot of babies this trip, every zebra herd had 1 or 2, baby impalas, hippos and giraffe. The birding was spectacular, if you’re into birds. The only problem with birds is that they do not sit still for photos like the 4 legged critters do! It only rained 1 day in the early evening, some of the park was closed due to mud and there were no walking safaris, which we enjoyed on our last safari. We knew this before we left, so we weren’t surprised and disappointed.
I’m glad I went and saw the contrast, but I do prefer the dry season. More activities available and the animals more concentrated. We did see more of everything this trip, 12 lions, hundreds of zebra, hippos and elephant, puku, impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, 3 different mongoose, genets, a Mozambique spitting cobra and 4 leopards. I don’t think I’d go back in the Emerald Season, but I wouldn’t talk anyone out of it either. The greenery is amazingly beautiful and just to see the river with so much water, it was worth it!
We were met at Mfuwe Airport by Stephen Banda, our guide for the next 3 days. There were 2 other people who were going to Tafika. When we got in the Land Rover, we looked at each other and said “You were at Chongwe!” Yep, they stayed at Chongwe last year, the same time we were there. (so I’m not the only one who went back to Zambia in such a short period of time!) On the way through Mfuwe, a tire flew off the vehicle and into the bush. I thought we were going to flip but Stephen kept it under control and we rolled to a stop. About 10 Zambians emerged from the bush to discuss with Stephen what had happened (the tire flew off) and after about an hour in the hot sun, they managed to find the tire, bend the bolts back and used some of the lug nuts from the other tires and we were on our way to Croc Camp where we would take a boat up to Tafika. The boat was a Zodiac type boat and in his anxiety over the tire flying off, Stephen forgot to tell us to put on sunscreen and a hat. (the luggage was loaded in a banana boat which would come up river later in the day) So we were 2.5 hours in the hot, blazing sun with no protection. By the time we got to Tafika, Sally, a fair skinned Brit had blisters on the top of her hands and had to keep cold towels on them for the rest of the trip. The boat ride was a bit uncomfortable but the scenery was beautiful, the river full, greenery everywhere, hundreds of hippos....We were in AFRICA! We arrived at Tafika mid-afternoon and were greeted by our hosts John and Carol Coppinger and a new trainee Cal. The camp was in a beautiful location on the river, nice green grass in front of the chalets and the chalets were spacious and open air design. The beds were the most comfortable of all the beds I’ve slept in and the decor is bright, local designs. The toilet was outside but covered and the shower was outside uncovered. I really enjoyed the setup, there was a porch in the front, a long table inside to unpack and each bed had it’s own mosquito net. The dining/bar area was nice and we ate under the stars every night. Since we had already spent 2.5 hours in the boat the first day, noone really wanted to go for an afternoon boat ride so we all just sat around talking, drinking and watching the hippos in the river. We had chalet 2, which is right on the hippo highway between chalets and heard hippos munching grass all night. It was nice and the sounds of hippos eating and bellowing is the best bedtime music of all! We went canoeing the next day, very fun and saw an incredible amount of “beautiful” birds. To float down the channels with only the sounds of birds chirping, cawing and whatever other noises birds make is quite amazing! Makes you feel like you’re the only ones on Earth. The only thing missing were the animals! On all the river rides, we only saw about 7 elephants, a couple of pukus and some impala. The drives this time of year from Tafika are only by boat and we did 4 more boat trips to different parts of the river. We went to the stork colony and saw hundreds of huge yellow billed storks up in their nests in the trees, another amazing sight! On the way there, we came face to face with a stubborn hippo who refused to let us into the stork channel. We’d go forward, he’d come forward, we went backwards, he came forwards, this went on for about 20 minutes, quite scary as he had to be the biggest hippo I’ve ever seen! Finally, he tired of the fun and dove under and went on his way. After watching the storks, it was time for a break so Stephen headed towards an island in the stream. I started singing the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” in my head and not really paying much attention to anything. When we landed, Stephen and the guard got out of the boat to tie it off and all of a sudden they started flapping their arms and legs. I thought, “How cool, a Zambian tribal dance” Then they were running toward the boat and yelling “Get down, get down” and I thought “Uh-oh, the stubborn hippo is going to jump in the boat” I ducked down, the two Zambians jumped in the boat, started the engine and were speeding off. I looked up and now everyone but me was flapping their arms and legs. I thought (as Gilligan’s Island is still playing in my head) “where’d they all learn the Zambian tribal dance?” When we came to a stop, I discovered that it was no Zambian tribal dance, but the two Zambians had tied the boat to a tree with a hive of African Killer Bees attached and were trying to get away from the bees. I guess it pays to be in La-la land as I didn’t get stung once! The others got stung about 20 times each. Luckily no one was allergic as Stephen had no shock medicine. Quite exciting and it’s amazing the more my traveling companion tells the story, the more stings he got! (I think he’s up to 200 now!) The last night at Tafika we all went on John’s microlight flight. It was AWESOME and everyone who goes there has got to do it! The view from above is incredibly beautiful. We saw a herd of 100 elephants, huge herds of buffalo, zebra and storks and other birds flying near us. The flight lasted about 25 minutes, it was scary at first but when it was over, I wanted to go up again. The next morning we had breakfast and headed back to Croc Farm to meet up with Puku Ridge and our friends were off to Nkwali.
Thoughts on Tafika: Beautiful location and chalets, relaxed camp. Would be better later in the season when there are more activities to do. (walking, driving) The hosts were not the friendliest nor the most energetic or enthusiastic. They were nice but kind of standoffish. The lunches were better than the dinners but every meal had a fresh salad from their garden. Best meals: homemade pasta with homemade sauce and grated cheese, corn and bacon frittatas and banana flan for desert.
Would I go back? Despite the lack of energy by the hosts, it is a beautiful place and yes, I’d go back, but only in the dry season and to microlight again.
PUKU RIDGE TENTED CAMP
We had a two hour boat trip down river to Croc Farm and met up with Abel, our guide at Puku Ridge. It was a 1.5 hour drive (Finally a game drive on land!!) to Puku Ridge where we saw our first glimpse of a leopard! It was so beautiful, though we only saw it cross the road and into the bushes. Abel drove off road to try to find it, but it was hidden in the bush and we only saw it’s tail. On the way we saw a lot of elephants, puku, impala and warthogs, so I was happy as a clam! We arrived at Puku Ridge and were greeted by the hostess Judy. David, her husband was sick with malaria so we didn’t meet him until the next day. The tent was huge and beautiful! A sitting area with a couch and chairs, a sunken tub, indoor and outdoor shower, and the beds faced the flood plain out front, and a nice porch overlooking the plain. The dining area was large and they also had a table and chairs on a porch above the plain. It is a beautiful camp and location. The flood plain in front was flooded and all that were there were hippos. By the time we left, the plain was almost dry, full of pukus and impalas, and you could have walked across it. Last year we drove it, so it was nice to see the contrast. All of the game drives here were productive. We saw a pride of 7 lions each day, another brief glimpse of a leopard, lots of zebra, puku, impala, giraffe and elephants. One night we saw 5 lions walking the road with an obvious mission. They were on a hunt! They passed on both sides of the car, then split up and took their positions. The screeching of the baboons and the snorting of the pukus alerted the rest of the animals and within minutes the impala took off and a lioness lunged, bit it’s neck and brought it down, all within 20 feet of our vehicle! The dominant male came over to the kill, had a brief fight with the lioness, the roar of their fighting brought shivers down my spine, it was an incredible experience. We pulled up close and watched the lion devour the impala, bones and all! AMAZING! Something I will never forget! We saw the lions on all of our following drives, only the lion appeared to have gotten anything to eat. The lionesses were so skinny. We did see them mating once, how the lioness had the energy, I’ll never know, but since it only took 20 seconds, I don’t think it took too much out of her. We did see another attempted kill on the third day, but this time the impala were faster than the lions. We saw a lion crossing the river, elephants crossing the river and every game drive was spectacular! The elephants were braver or bolder this time of the year and every herd of elephant we saw, at least one made a mock charge, which was always exciting! We were the only ones at Puku Ridge for our entire stay, so we were spoiled by having the vehicle all to ourselves for the whole stay. One night Judy and David and one of the staff went along with us, that was the night the skies opened up, the rain came down in buckets, the sky was full of lightning and thunder, the roads got muddy, and we were soaking wet by the time we got back to camp. The storm lasted about an hour, and except for a short rain on the way to the airport on our final day, that is the only rain we had. Judy had only been there for 10 days so she was excited as we were to see all the animals. (a sidenote for those who want to work at a game lodge: Judy and David are from Australia, and have no experience in hotel management or hosting, but traveled to Africa several times and decided that is what they wanted to do, so they bombarded the management of a lot of companies in Africa by e-mail about running a camp. They persisted, followed up e-mail by e-mail and got a call from Star of Africa where they had an interview over the phone and got the job! Their dream come true! Judy was in human resources for a mining company in Australia and David is into computers...so you don’t always need hotel management experience, just persistence!) The food was incredible here and by the second day, I could no longer button my shorts. (I only gained 8 pounds on this trip, down 3 from last trip) I had to tell them to lighten up on the selections at tea time. So instead of a cake or pie, we had a cheese platter of brie, camembert, feta, smoked cheddar and crackers. There’s probably more calories in that, but at least it wasn’t cake! It’s amazing what these places come up with, being in the middle of Africa! They have a man Diamon who served as bartender, waiter, maitre’d and everything else and he really made the camp! Everynight at the candlelit dinner he would announce the meal. “Hello my name is Diamon, and for tonights meal, I am pleased to offer.......” Same speech every night, he was great! One night we were serenaded by the “Puku Ridge Tented Camp Choir”, 7 of the staff singing Zambian songs, it was so cool! I taped the songs and played them throughout the trip and every day since. One day we went up to Chichele Lodge to see what it’s like. It’s a beautiful “hotel”, I wouldn’t stay there, but it was nice.
Thoughts on Puku Ridge: Great tents, nice location, excellent, friendly staff. Judy, David and Diamon were amazing, I wish them well. Such great people, well suited for the job. Very good area for game drives, not much mud in that area and lots of game. It almost became my favorite camp, I would go back here, even in Emerald Season. The food was great. Highlights were pork filet, mashed potatoes and pumpkin, creme caramel, the cheese platter and a brandy crisp cone with homemade ice cream (and they do not have an ice cream maker!) The only complaint I had was that they ran out of the local gin for g and t’s at sundowner and charged us for the more expensive gin. We should not have had to pay for what they ran out of, it wasn’t our fault, and a sundowner without g & t’s is unspeakable! ($6.00 a drink, I know not much, but 3 nights of sundowner g & t’s do add up) Other than that, I hated to leave, but knowing we were headed to Luangwa River Lodge, it wasn’t too bad.
A BIRTHDAY TO REMEMBER!
I’m jumping the gun here, as my birthday was the last day at Luangwa River Lodge, but I wanted to share this spectacular day before the report on LRL.
I woke up, had breakfast, and off on a game drive. Victor, our guide, said “It will be a very good day for animal sightings as all the animals know it is your birthday” (I did mention it to the elephants the day before so they would come out en masse to wish me a happy birthday) but the morning drive was the least productive of all our drives! Victor then said, “Well, the animals must be getting ready for the party, they will come out on the afternoon game drive.” I was more than a little disappointed, but who was I to complain, I was in Africa, at my favorite lodge, celebrating my birthday! Other than the 1 eyed puku and the zebra baby with the lion slash on his thigh, (that must have been one hell of a fight, and that the zebra baby survived, is amazing, we hardly saw anything! After the game drive we had a nice lunch of spicy chicken wings, African rice, corn stuffed potatoes and fruit salad, Maryann, the host said she had a big surprise for me. Earlier in the day we had come across a Danish woman stuck in the mud who needed to get to LRL “for business”. We got her out of the mud, she took the boat across river with us and disappeared. Maryann said that the Danish woman, Natalie, was here to give me a 2 hour hot stone massage in the boma on the banks of the Luangwa. How cool was that?!! So we went down to the boma where she had her massage table, boiling water with the stones in it, some massage oil and towels. I have to say, I’ve never had a massage before, let alone a hot stone massage, but it was out of this world!!! I felt like rubber when the two hours were up. Amazing experience! I just kept thinking, “I bet I am the only person in the whole world, who at this very moment, is getting a hot stone massage on the banks of a river in Africa, being serenaded by the grunts of hippos, the sounds of all the birds, watching impala on the far shore and baboons in the trees” It was just incredible! (for anyone staying anywhere in South Luangwa, Natalie’s services can be had. She’ll come to any lodge in the area. Her business is called “A Personal Touch” and I highly recommend it, better than sitting around the tent at siesta time! She is planning on opening up a day spa somewhere around Mfuwe for the women or men who don’t want to do another game drive, a great idea!) After the massage, Simon, LRL’s chef, made me a chocolate mocha birthday cake and 6-7 of the staff sang Happy Birthday. They got ½ way through the second verse, forgot the words and that was that! It was so funny, them looking at each other, shrugging their shoulders, not knowing the words, then just stopped, it was a great moment! The afternoon game drive was much better than the mornings, so I was happy. My favorite elephants (well, they could have been but who knows) stayed in the road, mock charged us about 12 times, flapping their ears, shaking their heads, and trumpeting. Victor said “That is elephant talk for Happy Birthday”. We saw the lions, all the zebra, the 1 eyed puku, warthogs, mongoose and everything else, they had come out for the party!! On the way back to camp, the bush was filled with fireflies and 1 even landed on my leg. It was magical and a great way to end my day. At dinner, Simon cooked my favorites from the last trip, butternut squash soup, smoked pork neck, shredded potatoes, and a banana creme torte. Sean and Maryann gave me a bottle of Piper Heidseick champagne and we all toasted to ME! It was a great day and one I will never forget! Thanks Sean and Maryann and all the staff at Luangwa River Lodge for making my birthday in Zambia so special!!!
LUANGWA RIVER LODGE
Abel from Puku Ridge drove us to Croc Farm where we met up with Victor, the guide from Luangwa River Lodge. We had him last year for a walking safari, he’s a great guide, funny, and really knows his stuff! We hopped on the boat for a short river ride to the lodge. We were met by Maryann and Sean as Barry and Tara were stuck in Mozambique. Sean is Barry’s brother and Maryann is his wife. They were great hosts, making us feel at home and since Maryann is Zambian, we learned a lot about growing up there. All the staff at the lodge came out to greet us, remembering us from last year. We had the same chalet as last visit, it has the boma nearest to the river. It was like coming home for spring break! We had a nice lunch, then back in the boat to Croc Farm to pick up some other guests. From there we went on a game drive. Saw 5 different lions from the ones at Puku Ridge, they were very skinny. Finally saw a couple of buffalo, which mostly stay out of touch in the Emerald season, and a brief glimpse of another leopard. Saw lots of zebra, puku, impala and elephants. Came back to camp by moonlight in the boat. I have to say that the morning game drives in the Emerald Season are not as productive as the afternoon/night drives. Hardly any elephants in the mornings, though the lions were always in the road. Next day ½ way down the river on our return to camp, the boat broke down. Then the boat they sent to rescue us broke down so we had no choice but to walk back to camp. Victor said “It’s just around the bend, just around the bend”...well we walked for an hour and there were many bends before the lodge! When we were getting out of the boat, a hippo came out of the brush and slid down into the river and followed us, grunting, all the way to the lodge. I thought for sure he’d come back up and attack, or call his friends in the bush to “get us” but we had no more surprises. Being an unscheduled walk, we had no guard. The mud was past our ankles, the sounds of the bush louder on foot, Victor kept saying “don’t touch this, watch out for that” I thought we’d all be dead if we made it back. It’s not easy not to touch things when your ½ stuck in mud! We made it back though, another great adventure under our belts. On that evenings game drive, after another great drive, we came across a leopard, but he ran into the bushes. Sean was stuck in the mud with the LandCruiser, so we passed him on the way to the boat dock and we got stuck. Victor said “The boat launch is just around the bend, we’ll walk” (now where did I hear that before?!) Well we had just seen a leopard walking that way, we had one small torch (mine) and there were 6 of us huddled together to ward off the leopard, hippo and crocs. It was only a 15 minute walk, we made it, but it had to be on the “Top Ten Most Scary Moments In My Life” list! I think it will be a long time before Dana, one of the other guests returns to Africa! Next day, the other guests were leaving so we went with them to “Tribal Textiles”, very nice fabric products to buy,(pillow cases, wall hangings, placemats etc.) and then went to ZAWA and had a presentation on poaching and saw the snares and guns that poachers use and some elephant tusks and leopard skin. Very interesting! On the way back we finally saw the leopard who stood still for photos, then he walked, we followed. In a culvert next to the road there was a 10 foot crocodile. The leopard saw the croc, the croc saw the leopard, the croc moved forward, the leopard moved forward....finally the leopard must have realized the croc was too big to tackle, so off it went, with the croc following. For three days, we had the camp to ourselves, making 6 of 11 nights, just us. It was like a private safari. Mfuwe Lodge, RPS and Nkwali all had between 6-8 people in their rovers. It was nice not having to share, going where we wanted, stopping when we wanted. In the 5 days we were there the river dropped 2.5 meters and you could see the islands of sand, the submerged trees and hippos standing up! After 5 nights at LRL, it was time to leave. We went on a short game drive in the morning, then off to the airport for a night in Lusaka, 3 nights in London and 2 nights in California. This time at the airport, I remembered to buy the CD “A Luangwa Adventure”, 70 minutes of sounds from the bush. I’ve been playing it at night to fall asleep to the sounds of hippos and the go away bird.
It’s always sad leaving Luangwa River Lodge, they’re all like family or long lost friends!
Thoughts on Luangwa River Lodge: The staff are the greatest! Whether it’s Barry and Tara, or Sean and Maryann, the hosting is outstanding! You’ll be made to feel at home, at ease and welcome. The food is the best we’ve had anywhere, Simon, their chef, is a culinary genius! The location, at a bend on the river is extraordinary any season of the year. I’d go back anytime! Food highlights: Butternut squash soup, squash fritters, lamb shanks and white beans, carmelized onion in puff pastry, smoked pork neck, bacon and walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette, banana creme torte, coconut sorbet... all the food was good!
The flight from Mfuwe to Lusaka, with a stop in Chipata was uneventful. We were met at the airport by the Intercontinental bus and taken on a mad drive through Lusaka to the hotel. I think the driver didn’t want to be there as when Maryann called to confirm our pickup, she had to argue with 2 or 3 employees at the hotel about what time the shuttle would be there. They told her the last shuttle was at 4, we didn’t arrive until 4:45 on a scheduled flight, so Maryann was insistent on them picking us up. The driver drove like a madman, passing cars when we could see oncoming traffic, weaving in and out, it was a ride from hell! The Inter-Continental is nice, rooms a bit small, hardly any shopping but the bar is nice! We went out to dinner with Ilsa, a Belgian woman we met last year at Luangwa River Lodge, and her husband Jacob. She’s a writer for the Lusaka Post and has co-written a book about Zambia’s Secret Waterfalls, he’s a chief from one of the tribes. Had a great time and had some pretty good Chinese food. (Chinese food in Lusaka?) Got up the next day and went to the airport. Lusaka airport is not bad, check in was quick and upstairs in the waiting area they have 4 nice shops for souvenirs, so I was finally able to buy some mementos from Zambia. On the flight to London, there was a group of 50 Congolese refugees, mostly children, who had been in a Zambian refugee camp and were going to the U.K. to start new lives. The organization that was taking care of them was IOM, if anyone wants to read about it, they have a web-page. It was so sad seeing them, all they had was a jacket, a pair of shoes, a beanie style hat and some mittens. There was a young girl sitting up and across from me who looked so terrified of what lay ahead. I kept giving her candy bars and sodas, everytime she’d look at me with big eyes and say “Merci”. When the stewardess would come around with juice, the young girl would hide her “goodies”, probably thinking she wouldn’t get anything if she already had something, When we landed, I shook her hand and with tears in my eyes, I told her, “Good Luck”, though she didn’t speak English, I hope she understood.
Took the Heathrow Express into London, then a cab to our hotel, the Thistle Marble Arch. The hotel was very nice, room comfortable and convenient to the tube station. We took the Big Bus London tour, hop on hop off wherever you wanted. We toured the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Princess Diana memorial. That night we went out to dinner with a couple we met last year at Chongwe. Had a great time though the food was so god-awful after the gourmet feasts in Zambia. The next day we went out to Kew Gardens, would have been nice if anything was in bloom, but it was quite boring at this time of the year. Came back, did some shopping on Oxford and Regent Streets, had dinner at the hotel and the next morning, back to the U.S. The flight on BA was not bad, had the 2 seat configuration again (back of the plane on a 747 and except for not having video on demand, it was good. Two days in California with family and friends, then back to Hawaii, ready to plan the next trip.
to see my pictures go to:www.kodakgallery.com/dennisinzambia