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Trip Report - Lower Zambezi National Park

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TRIP REPORT

Introduction

This was the first time that I was leaving the “security” of East African safaris to venture into the unknown (5 previous safaris in East Africa).

The plan was to spend 10 days relaxing at a safari destination to celebrate my wife’s (Jayna) birthday and give her a well-deserved break. We wanted to stay in one location and at a maximum of 2 different camps. The options were narrowed down to Sabi Sands (SA) or the Lower Zambezi National Park (Zambia) and the thought of relaxing on the banks of the Zambezi river won it for me (together with the reputation of Chiawa Camp). It was Fodor’s and in particular Rocco’s posts that introduced me to Zambia, so I asked if he could help me to book this trip through his company. It was at very short notice (the idea was only presented to Rocco, 8 weeks before departure!!!), but Rocco done a great job and everything went smoothly and as planned. Living in London, Lusaka is only a 10 hour overnight BA flight with a 1 hour time-difference.

The itinerary was:

- 5 nights Chiawa Camp (superior luxury tent)
- 3 nights Sausage Tree Camp (honeymoon room)
- 1 night Taj Pamodzi (Lusaka)

This was also the most luxurious safari that I had ever booked (on my last safari, I spent nights sleeping in dome tents with a hole in the ground as my toilet) but it didn’t distort my thoughts from my main priority – GOOD GUIDING

Location

Zambia is unique on the African safari circuit as you are allowed to do night drives and walks within the National Parks. I love the thrill of night game-drives and all of my previous experiences had been in private reserves and conservation areas in Kenya.
After arriving in Lusaka, we still required the assistance of a light aircraft (25 minutes), a landcruiser (20 minutes) and a boat (15 minutes) – just to reach our first camp. Despite my love for the Mara river, the Zambezi was breathtaking and magical. During the transfer, the experience of speed-boating down the river and passing the curious animals on the banks, made me feel as though I was on my first ever safari. It was a wonderful new experience.
The LZNP was very green and bushy during our May visit. This made for some very surprising encounters during our game drives, including elephants that could hide but be just 10 meters away from the vehicle. During night-drives they would get as close as 3 meters before being seen – the most memorable encounter was when one elephant trumpeted in Jayna’s ear from 3 meters away during a night drive. The elephant was completely hidden by bushes at the side of the road and gave everyone a fright as we drove past. We also experienced some of our best “off-road” driving to date – very bumpy but enjoyable. The most amazing aspect of the LZNP park was it’s remoteness. I can remember 3-4 hour game-drives where we did not encounter another vehicle. After spending so much time in East Africa – this was another new experience!!! Also, the guides from one camp will not radio guides from another camp if they find a good sighting – information was only passed on when guides crossed paths during game-drives – and this was very rare!! During one game-drive with Sausage Tree, whose guides had tracked down the lion pride, we passed a Chiawa vehicle and informed them of our find. Two Chiawa vehicles then followed us to the location and it was such a reassuringly pleasant affair. We were allowed to spend as much time as we wanted with the pride while the first Chiawa vehicle waited at least 25 meters away from us (and the second Chiawa vehicle waited a further 25 meters behind the first one). Not once did we feel rushed or crowded and the other vehicles even positioned themselves out of our view – so it was just us and the lions. Jayna and I have never seen such consideration for the animals or other guests during our East African safaris – another new experience!!!

Guiding

The guides at Chiawa (Joe, Daniel, Dispenser) and at Sausage Tree (Moses, Lawrence) were all young, highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. After 10 years of safaris and reading, I thought I already knew all there was to know about African wildlife – but I was wrong – I learnt so many more new and interesting facts about the flora and fauna. These guides made you sit up and want to listen. The guides in Zambia have to work hard to qualify, especially if they want to take clients on game-drives, walks and canoe trips (all three activities would require obtaining +70% in a total of 3 written and 2 practical exams). The standard was fantastic. Another observation that I made was that guides who are based in just one park are far more in tune with their surroundings and that confidence leads to a greater sense of reassurance.

The Game

The game-viewing was not as prolific as in east Africa and you had to work hard to find the game, mainly due to the time of year (water was available throughout the valley and escarpments + visibility was reduced). In the peak of the dry season (September – October), the game-viewing is more spectacular as most of the animals come to the valley floor in search of food and water, resulting in herds of animals on the banks of the Zambezi. The animals here were very “wild” and skittish. This made photography more of a challenge but also made us appreciate the time we did spend with the animals. I had never been a “bird” person before but I did enjoy the challenge of trying to capture them on photo, as you’ll see from my many bird photos (this trip was first attempt at using an SLR camera). I think the main reason for this is that in all of my previous safaris, I have focussed on video – and it’s much easier to capture birds on video. The guide’s tracking skills were really tested at times and this made it more rewarding when the animals were found – a great sense of achievement for both yourself and your guide.

Highlights (there were so many but here are a few…)
- the 4 meter African Rock Python. It has taken me 10 years to find this amazing animal and it was such a beautiful one. It was found by Daniel (Chiawa) during a night drive and very close to the camp. That night Daniel was following a leopard who was in sight, but when he saw the python crossing the road, he left the leopard to stay with the python (that would have been my choice too because it is quite a rare sighting). They left a plastic bottle on the side of the road to mark the area close to the slow-moving python. Joe, who was our guide that night, found the marker and allowed me to get out of the vehicle and walk within 2 meters of the resting python. Surprisingly all of the ladies remained in the car!!! (As you may be able to tell – I love snakes, especially the constrictors).
- Watching two equal sized elephant bulls having a good old fight. They boxed for 3 rounds, with stops for feeding between each round. It was fascinating to watch and required us to reposition our vehicle when the big elephant dust-ball was moving close to our vehicle.
- Two wonderful leopard sightings.
- The wonderful interaction between a male lion and his young cubs.
- A pair of honey badgers sighted during the day time and very close to Sausage Tree camp.
- One hippo trying to kill another during a night game-drive. This is one sighting that I will remember for its cold-blooded brutality rather than its beauty.

Biggest Regret

- Jayna and I went for a game-drive every single morning EXCEPT one (at Chiawa) – where we decided to go for a guided walk instead. That morning the Chiawa game-drive found 3 wild dogs while they were hunting and by the time they caught up with them, they were already feeding on an impala. By the afternoon game-drive, the dogs had moved on. If someone had asked me before the trip to choose between wild dog and python - then python would have been my first choice (as I had seen wild dog before in South Africa).

Funniest Animal Moment

- We had just finished lunch at Chiawa Camp so me, Jayna and Joe sat there talking about snakes. Jayna is absolutely petrified of snakes (even a photo of a snake will disturb her). All of a sudden, we heard two small thudding sounds on the dining area floor – a snake and a lizard FELL FROM THE SKY, within 2 meters of us. Actually, both fell from the thatched roof above us – we suspected that the non-venomous spotted bush snake was hunting the lizard at the time. At ground level the chase came to an end as both lizard and snake went off in opposite directions, trying to escape from us. Joe tried to delay the snake’s escape so I could get a photo but it was too fast and shot up a tree (by this time Jayna had both of her feet off the ground and on a chair). It’s a good thing we weren’t talking about elephants at the time!!!! :))

Camera Equipment

Jayna and I had a total of 5 cameras with us. The bulk of the photos posted in the "Back from Zambia" thread, were taken with a digital Canon EOS 30d with a 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L USM IS Lens (actual maximum zoom = 640mm). I was a complete newbie with this equipment and it was Joe at Chiawa who suggested that I should turn on the “image stabilization” (this was after a few hundred photos had already been taken!!!! :) ) I even carried all my manuals for the camera and the lenses, hoping to read them there – but it never happened.
Most of Jayna’s photos were taken with a Nikon F100 film camera using a basic zoom lens (up to 300mm). I will try to post some of her photos that were scanned from the negatives. We also employed a compact digital camera that had an optical zoom of 380mm (a Kodak DX6490 – a handy little 4MP camera).

THE TWO CAMPS

Sausage Tree Camp is only about 8km downstream from Chiawa Camp. Both camps operate a very similar daily routine.

Game Drive Vehicles

Both camps used open-sided/open-topped landcruisers with 3 rows of seats. Maximum capacity is 9 guests but the most we encountered was a total of 5 passengers (including me and Jayna). There was plenty of room for our camera bags and equipment.

Activities

The same activities were available at both camps – day drives, night drives, boating, canoeing, fishing and walking. As me and Jayna do not swim, Chiawa advised us against the canoeing which we totally understood. Although most of the canoeing is done in shallow water, both camps required you to cross deeper areas to access the shallow channels. We were both happy with the boat cruises.
In terms of game-drives, Chiawa do not offer full day game drives. This would be understandable during the very hot months but this option should be available during the cooler months (May, June, July). As the guides had to return from the morning activity by a certain time, it did seem as though they were trying to rush back and were always checking the time, to make it back for lunch. The hardcore game-drivers who want full-day drives may need to see if they can arrange this in advance with Chiawa. The other drawback of this system is that you are restricted regarding the distances you cover from the camp during your game-drives. Sausage Tree offered us a game drive from 7am to 8pm (13 hours), and they also arranged a bush-lunch for us where a warm meal was served at a table in the bush – before continuing with the game drive, so not the typical picnic lunch. Sausage Tree seemed more flexible with the length and distances of game drives. Even if you are sharing a vehicle with other guests who wanted to return early, the guides were happy to drop them back to camp and then continue with the game drive. Our best day drive was at Sausage Tree where we covered all 3 major plains areas of the national park. Our best night drive was at Sausage Tree where we started the game drive in the Jeki plains area (we left at 3:45pm and drove to the Jeki Plains for sundowners - very far out from the camp – and the night drive was our return back to camp). During that night drive we had a wonderful leopard sighting (15 minutes stalking impala on the Jeki Plains), we saw the hippo fight, as well as African wild cat, civet, hyenas, lots of porcupines, lots of gennets, elephants, buffalo plus lots more.

Design and atmosphere of camp

Chiawa had very relaxed and family-like atmosphere. All staff members including those behind the scenes were acknowledged. Guides always had lunch and dinner with the guests, which was very nice. The design blends in well with the surroundings and the camp is built on the bank of the Zambezi river. There was faster flowing water, resulting in no mosquito bites.
Sausage Tree Camp had a very relaxed and peaceful atmosphere but more of a colonial feel. The guides do not have dinner with the guests but Moses did join us during the bush lunch, which was nice. The unique white tents do stand out when approaching the camp, but they are not too apparent when in camp as there are many trees and bushes but the rooms are unique in their own way. The camp is built on the bank of a channel that runs off the Zambezi river so the water was more still, therefore there were mosquitoes in the evenings. There was a very nice bar area with great views of the sunset. I really liked the library area too.

Rooms

This is an unfair comparison. Tent 8 at Chiawa was the newest and probably the best room in the Lower Zambezi National Park. They only finished the building and preparation of the tent on the morning of our arrival. It truly was a superior luxury tent with a nice view of the river and any passing wildlife. It was wonderfully spacious, but at the same time it was very private and unobtrusive to the surroundings. The whole bathroom was under canvas and there was also a private outdoor tree shower. Other guests could not be heard from the room. We were honoured to be the first guests to stay in this superb new room.
At Sausage Tree Camp room 1 was spacious, but it did seem a little less private when compared to the tent at Chiawa. The bathroom has no roof and so is exposed to the elements and little creatures. One of the bathroom walls has been lowered to give you a bath and a toilet with a view. During the day, the front of your room is left open. At night when the front is closed, you only have curtains separating the bathroom from the main room. Many people will enjoy this exposure and bush feel, especially if you are comfortable in the presence of insects, frogs and lizards. The bathroom becomes a meeting place for insects at night, which also attracts the insect-eaters. I did not mind the little visitors but Jayna was not impressed!!! Especially one night, when there were 2 frogs inside the mosquito netting of the bed, which I had to catch and release outside. If you are not bothered by insects and small creatures, then you will enjoy the rooms here. On our first morning at Sausage Tree Camp Jayna was making so much noise complaining about the insects in the bathroom. She woke up a family of vervet monkeys in the tree above who then started throwing things down from the tree until the volume was lowered!!! :)

Game viewing from camp

At Chiawa, the rooms are withdrawn from the river and therefore animals need to wander a bit inland to access the main camp grounds. Two bull elephants were seen walking through the camp about 10 - 15 meters from our room. There is also a resident family of naughty vervet monkeys. Chiawa camp has a hide that is positioned closer to the river. From the hide we saw elephants and a buffalo quite close up. From a distance we saw elephants, buffalos, hippos, impala, bushbuck, baboons, a crocodile and some birds. From the hide you can also see the dry Chowe river bed which animals use as a pathway. This pathway was also used by animals coming close to the camp grounds.
The bird life around Sausage Tree camp is quite vibrant and there were many good photo opportunities. Elephants and buffalos were seen wandering along the guest pathways, which was exciting but also made you realise how close these wild animals will approach human areas. Jayna and I had some very close, but safe, encounters with elephants and buffalo. Hippos and crocodiles were also seen very close to the camp. We had one memorable visit from three elephant bulls that blocked us from going to our room. When we did get back to our room, we found that one of them had been feeding on the tree that hung over our bathroom. The elephant made a mess of our bathroom but it was a good thing that no one was sitting on the toilet at the time.

Food (taking into account a restricted diet of no meat, fish, eggs, onions or garlic)

Chiawa were superb and Barbara (in charge of pampering) made it her mission to ensure that we were not going to starve. The dishes and the variations were wonderful. When cakes and deserts were made for guests at breakfast or tea-time, we had our own special eggless versions. So much care and imagination was put into the preparation of our food. New dishes were prepared every day. We even had specially prepared snacks to eat with our drinks during game drives. It was made very clear, exactly what we could eat and what was specially prepared for us – fantastic!!!
At Sausage Tree, the food was nice but lacked a bit of imagination and variation. Separate food was only prepared during the two main meals – lunch and dinner. Dinner for us was very similar on all three nights. During game drives we only had fruit to eat with our drinks. Other guests did have more variation in their meals and different snacks during game drives.


Hosting (although, this was not an important factor for me and Jayna, some guests will expect it)

At Chiawa, this was excellent and could not be faulted. Everyone was very helpful and friendly. If ever a safari camp could be described as a smooth running and well-oiled machine – Chiawa is it. Craig and Barbara were always available. Chiawa do like to surprise their guests and they definitely did that very successfully!!! Surprises included lunch on a river cruise, a traditional barbecue dinner under the stars and a romantic boat dinner was two whilst being anchored in the Lower Zambezi River. Also last but not least an elephant dung birthday cake for Jayna that luckily no one ate, with a wonderful edible one waiting in the wings (Barbara will probably hate me for revealing some of her surprises!!!).
At Sausage Tree, everyone was very friendly and happy. The time we spent with Tash and Dave (formerly of Jao Camp in Botswana) was nice and you could see their enthusiasm for what they were doing. When we stayed at Sausage Tree, Tash and Dave had only been there for a few weeks after taking over the management of the camp. I am sure they have some of their own ideas and in time they will try to put them in place. Despite them being busy with their new role, they did try to make time for all of the guests. The bush lunch was a nice surprise, as I was expecting the usual East African picnic lunch.

OVERALL

We had some wonderful game sightings and despite fewer animals than East Africa, it was our best overall safari experience to date (a combination of game-viewing, guiding, remoteness and relaxation). In Chiawa Camp, Jayna found her first home away from home and is still suffering from withdrawal symptoms......she wants to go back!!! From a game-viewing perspective, I was glad to have spent time at Sausage Tree as it enabled me to see other animals such as honey badgers, kudu, zebra and some others that I had not seen whilst at Chiawa. I also had the opportunity to explore more areas of the national park (which is a priority for me). People who combine Chiawa or Sausage Tree with Old Mondoro Bush Camp (this is a joint venture between the owners of Chiawa and Sausage Tree) will also have the opportunity to explore the different terrains and areas of the National Park. Zambia has definitely captured my imagination and I hope to return during the dry season of 2007 – with Kafue and the Luangwa Valley high on my agenda. We’ll also probably learn to swim.

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