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  • Writer's pictureMike Sutherland

Zambia: The Heartbeat of Africa

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Zambia is a destination that for too long has gone unnoticed, overlooked or simply kept a secret. Those that know it, understand what this magical country has to offer and perhaps they have been keeping it a secret all these years.

Zambia is a landlocked country, that shares its borders with Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and The Democratic Republic of Congo. In each corner of this fascinating country, one can find a national park that is home to not only the big 5, but the bird, mammal and habitat diversity seldom found elsewhere in Africa.

It is sometimes referred to as “The Heartbeat of Africa” and this could not be a more fitting way to describe this country. When you visit, you can feel the rhythm beneath your feet and as your experience unfolds, you float away, deep into its captivating essence.

We recently hosted an Escape to 3 of Zambia’s National Parks, an escape that saw us cover thousands of kilometres by air, land and water. We explored in small bush aircraft, flat bottomed boats, 4 x 4 safari vehicles, dugout canoes and on foot. A more rounded, intimate experience will be hard to match.

Our first stop was Lower Zambezi National Park which is one of Africa’s most thrilling safari regions. Set in the most scenic surroundings between a towering escarpment and the mighty Zambezi River. Here, guests can come for intimate, exciting, and adventurous experiences that many would only dream of. As photographers and lovers of wildlife, there is a space here for everyone.

We were fortunate enough to spend a week with the team from Tusk & Mane safaris, who currently operate 3 locations within the heart of the park's borders: Kutali Camp, Chula Camp and Tafara Springs. These are no-frills, no-fuss camps, focused on the essence of what a safari should be about – the wilderness.

Their focus is about time in the bush, putting wildlife and the environment at the centre of the experience and expertly guiding guests through an array of new and exciting adventures.

Their aim is to be as flexible as possible and ensure guests capitalise on time spent in the park. Whether it is a considered, close encounter on foot or a long bushwalk to a secret spot nobody else ventures, you feel alive at each moment.

Lower Zambezi National Park is found in the Zambezi Valley, across the river from the now-famous Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. Both parks owe their beauty to the mighty Zambezi River, which, over many centuries has moulded and meandered its way toward the Indian Ocean, along its path leaving large deposits of fertile soil, ox-box lakes and inland pools.

As time has passed, forests of Winterthorn trees (Faidherbia albida) have grown, which only allow slivers of light to penetrate their canopy, creating a magical, Disney-like atmosphere within which you explore. It is a place like no other.

We had a goal to disconnect from our daily reality, to be as present as we could and to take in each moment. Without any access to reception, no Instagram or Whatsapp interruptions, we were able to truly find peace in the wilderness.

We came to the Lower Zambezi to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday living, we came to escape the lights of the city and the constant buzz around town and that's exactly what we found.

Our time in Lower Zambezi was highlighted by the Winterthorn Forests and the dappled light you witness through its canopy, spending time floating along the Zambezi river in canoes and on boats, encountering large elephant bulls on foot who have become famously relaxed to human presence and not to mention some magical sightings of a pack of over 35 wild dogs.

We were spoilt for choice when it came to photographic opportunities and our days were filled with time in the field. We left no stone unturned and our hard work paid off in bucketloads.

Sadly, our stay in Lower Zambezi came to an end, and we then ventured into the far northern reaches of Zambia, to a lesser-known region called the Bangweulu Wetlands. Famed for the endemic black lechwe and being home to the elusive, prehistoric African Shoebill.

Our journey would take us across Zambia to an area where humans and wildlife co-exist, in one of Africa's most important wetlands. Bangweulu means "where the water meets the sky," which is extremely apt for a wetland of this size. Here, a recovering population of over 60'000 Black Lechwe live alongside 50'000 or more people, who utilize the swamps to sustain their families.

The wetland hosts guests from all over the world, who come to see and photograph the rare and endemic wildlife and birds that can be found here. Access to the park is by plane and boat, depending on seasonal water levels and lodging is limited to one special camp, Shoebill Island Camp, located on the water's edge.

The camp is a beautiful, basic tented camp that has all the creature comforts one might need. It is set in the heart of the wetland and overlooks a resident herd of hundreds of black lechwe. From here, guests spend most of their time aboard dugout canoes or larger canoes exploring the swamp and its channels.

If you are looking for something a little different, off the beaten track, then this is the type of experience that would grab you. Birding is a focus in Bangweulu, with specials like the African Shoebill, Bluebreasetd bee-eaters and Swamp Flycatchers, the wetland is also home to one of the highest populations of Wattled Cranes in Africa, a stronghold for this endangered species.

A major highlight of visiting the region is going in search of the African Shoebill. It is one of the best places to find and view shoebills, at close proximity and under the guidance of highly skilled, well-trained shoebill guides, who have spent many years researching and understanding the bird species in the region. Guests undertake an early morning paddle across the swamps, binoculars in hand, floating, searching for the dinosaur-like bird. You are educated as to how, through conservation and education, local people now see the value in the presence of the birds and how each healthy, successful pair can bring revenue and stability to the swamps.

In a recent agreement with African Parks Network, and owing to unsustainable pressure on Bangweulu’s wildlife and fish stocks, in 2008, six Community Resource Boards (CRBs) and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) entered into a long-term agreement with African Parks to deliver on a shared vision to sustainably manage and protect the wetland and its inhabitants, long into the future.

In a fairly unknown historic twist, the crossing of Bangweulu Swamps, in his effort to find the source of the Nile River, was the last place in which David Livingstone explored before he sadly succumbed to malaria and dysentery and died in Chief Chitambo's Village near Lake Bangweulu in 1873.

Our last stop on this epic Zambian Escape was the home of the walking safari, South Luangwa National Park. We made one last flight, in a small bush aircraft, southwards, toward the winding Luangwa River, passing over large escarpments as the heat of the day pushed towers of hot air upwards, sending our small plane bouncing through the sky.

We touched down and we were immediately hit by the distinct heat of the Luangwa Valley! We were back in the bush and heading in search of large mammals again.

Our home for the next week was Lion Camp, located in the northern region of South Luangwa National Park, along an old ox-box lake, previously connected to the Luangwa River, at the top end of Lion Plains. The Luangwa River is the lifeblood of this region, and as it winds its way along the valley floor, it creates lagoons, oxbows and open plains. Over the years, alluvial deposits have resulted in rich soils which are able to support attractive grasslands, dense woodlands and tall forests.

With such a diversity of landscapes and habitats, the wildlife in the region is not only well known but has become famous around the world, being documented by film crews who call South Launwga home during the dry season. Leopards, like the one pictured above, are followed daily by guests and film crews who wait in anticipation as she perfects a specialised technique of hunting from the branches of Sausage Trees (Kigelia Africana) as their flowers bloom, and then fall, attracting browsers like Puku and Impala below.

Years of conservation, ethical viewing of wildlife and a constant influx of excited guests have created a wilderness area that provides some of the most authentic and exciting game viewing known in Zambia. We spent the better part of the week exploring the river and its banks, in search of everything that was on offer. From Leopards to Carmine bee-eaters, who nest in the river banks in summer. Each encounter was unique and each picture taken was a memory to hold on to.

As we continue to grow as a business and as our expertise expands across the African continent, we are not only exposed to new wilderness areas but we gain more experience about regions we have visited before. We meet the people on the ground, we begin to understand the workings of these places more intimately and this first-hand experience helps our guests as we plan and facilitate more safaris around the continent.

For those passionate about Africa and seeking an intimate experience that is raw and unfiltered, Zambia is a place you need to visit. It will take hold of you and send you on a journey that you never expected to have.

Come Escape with us.

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