From a swank mobile safari camp to the swirl of Victoria Falls, Eric Rosen soaks up the rhythm of life on a Zambian safari along the great river in Zambia, Africa’s undiscovered treasure.

A Zambian Safari in South Luangwa

“You will find a whistle on one nightstand for little emergencies, and an air horn on the other for big emergencies,” explains Yaliwe, the young woman giving me the welcoming tour at my safari tent at Chinzombo. This is Norman Carr Safaris’ latest luxury camp in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.

Luxury Zambian Safari - Ker Downey

Yaliwe giggles and then leads me into the palatial bath- room, complete with rainfall shower and deep soaking tub. I have not moved on yet, though. I can’t help but ask, a little nervously, “What exactly counts as a big emergency?”

“A hippo on your deck.” She giggles again. I must blanch, because she quickly follows up, “But don’t worry, they cannot get up the stairs!”

She is right, of course. My tent, like the rest of the camp, is constructed of eco-conscious, low-impact materials, including its expansive deck. Though I’m sure a hippo would enjoy lounging on the sunken sectional or a mid afternoon dip in the plunge pool, the stairs mean that it is strictly for human enjoyment.

That said, each night presents a new cacophony of animals wandering through camp—hippos munching on the lush riverine grass, elephants lumbering through and rubbing up against the trees, baboons chasing one another through the foliage. Snug in my sumptuous bed, an individual cooling system keeping my mosquito-netted domain temperate, I quickly drift off, lulled by the rain-swollen rush of the Luangwa River.

Luxury Zambian Safari - Ker Downey

A territorial hippo’s bellow rouses me about 15 minutes before my sunrise wake-up call, but I don’t mind. I dress and gingerly tiptoe through a troop of baboons to the camp’s dining area. As my pot of French press coffee steeps, I browse the vintage photos of Norman Carr, the man himself, strolling with the pair of abandoned lion cubs named Big Boy and Little Boy he famously rescued, and trekking through some of Zambia’s more re-mote landscapes. Chinzombo, though recently built, is actually on one of his original campsites and takes pride of place along the river with a private boat delivering guests to and from the jeep for game drives each day.

I have come to Zambia in January: rainy season. But each day seems clearer than the last. The only clues that this is indeed the wet time of year are the rising river levels and the profusion of greenery everywhere, with animals dispersed among new watering holes throughout the park.

Though tracking game is a challenge to my unpracticed eyes, my guide, Abe, spots everything a mile away.

His manner is earnest and his voice has the sonorous timbre of an opera villain, but he visibly brightens when we spot anything from a stork to a lioness, and it takes on an endearing, childlike glee when he sees a baby elephant trundling along after its mother.

We are both spellbound by the sight of an adolescent female leopard elegantly sauntering across the road with a lazy look in our direction. Without warning she hurtles vertically up a tree after some chatty squirrels she thinks would make a tasty mid-morning snack.

Safari days are long with two four-hour drives each day. The first is at sunrise with a break for coffee or tea. We get back to camp in time for a light lunch and a siesta, though I usually take the opportunity to work at the rough-hewn wooden explorer-style desk in my tent, an antique-style tripod fan creating a soothing breeze in the shimmering heat.

Luxury Zambian Safari - Ker Downey

My favorite part of day is when we stop at dusk for sundowners (South African Sauvignon Blanc and leek mini-quiches for me, thank you) along the river. I also look forward to the brief nighttime drive back to camp afterwards, when the animals become more active, and we can spot the odd hyena or mongoose on the way. At one point, we witness what I can only describe as an African standoff: three lionesses and five adolescent cubs debating whether to cross a stream with a crocodile sitting on the opposite bank. The lions decide to take another route in the end and we make our way back to camp for a three-course gourmet dinner.

A Zambian Safari in Victoria Falls

My own route around Zambia was likewise circuitous, but precisely planned. I had arrived a few days earlier in Livingstone after the long flight from New York to Johannesburg on South African Airways. The Taittinger and lie-flat beds in business class made the sixteen hours across the Atlantic seem almost too short.

My base there was a lodge called Tongabezi, with newly renovated cottages arranged along the banks of the Zambezi with views across the river to Zimbabwe. I spent my first afternoon over a leisurely lunch of pork satay kebabs with okra relish and admiring the view from my private deck as a rainy afternoon turned into a gloriously fiery, purple- orange sunset.

Luxury Zambian Safari - Ker Downey

The next morning, I woke up to find some monkey business going on outside my door. Literally. A pack of vervet monkeys were helping themselves to a buffet of seedpods from the nearby trees and taunting each other as they scampered across the deck. Watching them made me smile wider as I anticipated the day ahead.

As though arranging for a picture-perfect visit to Victoria Falls just for me, the heavens cleared that morning so that every turn along the path opposite produced another mist-shrouded rainbow. With the high-running river and tumbling over the sheer basalt fault line that marks the Falls’ precipice, it was easy to see how they got their original local name, Mosi-Oa-Tunya, or the “smoke that thunders.”

Not as easy, however, was swimming across some of the rapids midstream from Livingstone Island to the Devil’s Pool. Tongabezi has exclusive operating rights to this tiny speck of land where the Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone was first paddled in a dugout canoe to see this natural wonder (and christen it after his queen).

As luck would have it, I was only just in time to earn my bragging rights since the rock pool at the Falls’ edge closed for the season the next day. After the pulse-pounding adventure of swimming through the stream and clamber- ing over rocks to the pool (a guide at our side at all times to keep us safe and calm), my fellow thrill-seekers and I were treated to a sumptuous multi-course barbecue lunch catered waterside around a huge square table shaded by a tent.

On the highway back to the lodge, we passed impala, giraffe and zebra nonchalantly grazing by the side of the road. My guide, Chande, started every animal sighting with a recita- tion of its life expectancy and gestation period as well as other facts, such as that giraffes only have seven vertebrae and hearts that weigh 60 pounds. If only biology class had been this interesting.

We also talked about the upcoming presidential elections, and what the incumbent administration’s policies mean for Zambia’s future. This is a country with tremendous potential and resources both for industry and hospitality. The fact that it has remained relatively unnoticed by the international community (whose focus has been more on neighbors South Africa and Zimbabwe) is both its greatest asset and impediment. But that is a discussion for another time.

It was just nearing five o’clock when we got back to camp, time for a sunset cruise along the river. I hopped into the boat with two of the other guests, an older British couple that had taken me in—we enjoyed two dinners and a day at the Falls in each other’s company in that sort of classic travel-based friendships that these small camps foster.

Luxury Zambian Safari - Ker Downey

As we motored between pods of hippos, our boat driver, Felix, pointed to one particularly ornery creature and suggested, “Hippo is opening his mouth. Will you take a picture please, sir?” I will.

His next question: “Do you want to see a baby crocodile?” Who would say no to that? The tiny reptile sat perfectly still on a log of driftwood, soaking in the last rays of sun. Then it was our time to relax as the sun began to set, letting the river take us back downstream accompanied by the ring-necked dove’s coo (locals joke that he is singing “work harder, drink lager”).

I have just enough time the next morning to visit Tujutane, a school next door to the lodge that was started over 25 years ago by Tongabezi’s owners, Vanessa and Ben Parker. It has grown from a single-room preschool into an entire primary school for kids of all ages. There are after-school clubs, art classes, computer literacy training and more. Each child greets me with a “hello” and a smile bigger than the last, and I myself can’t stop beaming after a class of four-year-olds sings me a rousing rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus.”

A Zambian Safari in the Lower Zambezi

My final destination on my Zambian safari is Lower Zambezi National Park. Though the closest to Lusaka (we take a 25-minute chartered flight over the Zambezi Escarpment to a dirt airstrip just outside the park), it is perhaps the most rustic and un- spoiled setting I visit. There are just six camps inside the park, and all of them closed for the wet season.

I have snuck in just under the wire and am treated to a weekend en famille with owner Jason Mott and his family at the all-weather Potato Bush Camp (raised platforms connect the luxury tents to the main lodge building) and its sister property, Sausage Tree. We are practically the only people in the park except for anti-poaching rangers.

Luxury Zambian Safari - Ker Downey

The rains have only just recently abated, so we try a short, muddy game drive, spotting zebras, impala and kudu at every turn before deciding to make a dash back to camp for sundowners. Settling into the low-slung rosewood and leather camp chairs Jason designed and commissioned from a Lusaka design store called Nzito (my other favorite décor piece here is the re- purposed ungalala outrigger canoe from Tanzania that was converted into bookshelves near the bar), we watch a poppy-red sun setting along the river as the crescent moon and Venus begin to glimmer higher up in the darkening skies.

The landscape here is unlike that of anywhere else in Zambia, with sheer red-rock riverbanks fronting the Zambezi (nearly a mile wide at this point) and the towering jungle-green slopes of the Escarpment in the background. We take to the river the next morning, paddling along the bucolic Chifangulu channel past lazy crocodiles and submerged hippos. Indeed, there are so many at one bend that Charles, my guide and the camp director, calls it “Hippo City.”

The camp boat meets us at the end of our paddle and we speed through the river’s main channel back to camp. A dip in Sausage Tree’s riverfront lap pool is just the refreshment we need before lunch. As I prepare to make my way back to my tent to change for lunch, Mott’s wife Kelly calls after me, “Eric, just keep an eye out as you walk back!”

“What for?” I ask, innocently enough.

“If you see some elephants, just stand still until they pass you by,” she advises.

Note taken. Armed with my new elephant etiquette, I actually hope to see some but without a pachyderm in sight, I am back at my tent and sink into the cowhide hammock on my private patio (there is also a small plunge pool) for an impromptu nap. A knock at the door some time later alerts me that it is time for a light lunch.

On today’s afternoon game drive, we get a bit farther, up into the section of the plains nicknamed “Out of Africa” thanks to their vast stretches of dry earth punctuated here and there by a sausage tree or palm. That is hard to believe, though, with the landscape as verdant as it is at this moment. The other bit of good luck: we only have to winch ourselves out of a mud hole once. What fun, though! The herds of impala and waterbuck are plentiful here and we wait, hoping to spy a lion or leopard out for a pre-dusk prowl. However, like the rest of the animals, the big cats are dispersed far and wide while the wet season’s watering holes abound, so there are no sightings this afternoon. Eventually, the river’s siren song proves too strong for us and we make our way back just in time to catch one last sunset on the water.

When we pull back into the dock, the campfire is already roaring underneath the towering sausage tree. The last daylight fades and the Milky Way comes into focus overhead.

As it does, my focus turns back to my time on my Zambian safari. Though my trip is at an end, my passion for the country—its pace, its places, its people and its spirit—has just begun, and I will carry it with me for the rest of my life.

Way to Go:

South African Airways offers one daily flight each from New York JFK non-stop to Johannesburg and from Washington Dulles via Dakar. While onboard, travelers can sample South African wines chosen by sommelier Bongi Sodladla and menus by celebrity chefs Reuben Riffel and Benny Masekwameng. Connections in Johannesburg are seamless, so kill some time in the Baobab business class lounge with a made-to-order cappuccino or a refreshing shower before your Zambian safari.

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