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Eco-Safari in Zambia

Passionate now to see the shoebill, we went on, eventually reaching the point at which the floating earth could not bear our weight. We sank in up to our knees, sometimes to our waists. And we finally found our object: a creature out of James Thurber, a prehistoric bird that came into the world not long after the pterodactyl left, with a beak like a giant clog stuck absurdly on the front of its head. We saw three shoebills; then, muddy and content, we trooped back and took long showers. We spent the afternoon looking at skinks scuttling about camp, feeling like the only people in all the universe.

That evening we drove back along the causeway a few miles, past fishermen's reed huts you could blow down with a huff, and onto the floodplain that lies beside the swamp. Flocks of wattled cranes performed mating dances there; beyond them were red lechwe antelope, 5,000 in a herd. Gavin set the throttle so the vehicle wandered along at about 10 miles per hour, and came and joined the rest of us on the roof. As we were slow and steady and lumbering, the animals were not so afraid; we passed through the way a baggage cart traverses a crowded airport. Back at camp, Marjorie made a resplendent dinner. When she brought out bananas flambé for dessert we heard gales of laughter from the staff. Tears rolling down their faces, they told us that the lady had set our dinner on fire!

Leaving the Bangweulu Swamps was like passing back through Alice's looking glass. Along the road we had taken two days earlier, we once more waved at dancing children. In one village, Willie Momba called to us from the side of the road. He produced a box tied up with string. "I've been waiting for you to come back. I wanted to give you these sweet potatoes," he said, presenting what must have been a third of his harvest. "I was so glad to meet you." And he smiled his big smile, and after some protest we accepted his gift. He stood in the road and waved at us until we were quite out of sight. We felt privileged to have visited this world, to have been the objects of these people's gentle affection. Their poignant generosity, the intense interest they showed in us, and their unaffected good humor were as appealing and as fundamental to our experience of the country as the impeccable weather.

Farther from the swamps, the houses became bigger again and were set back from the road, and the people were more prosperous. Perhaps they had seen more foreigners, because they waved more sedately and from farther away. By midafternoon we came upon a sign, bright blue letters on white, which said, turn right to the palace of chief chitambo. A hundred yards on was another sign pointing, this way to the palace of chief chitambo. We drove past a school and a dirt field of children bouncing balls. The largest sign yet announced, you are approaching the palace of chief chitambo. please remove your hat and get off your bicycle. Beyond low gates was a small square of well-kept English-looking grass, in the middle of which stood a tall flagpole. At the far side of the green were three identical low, white buildings, and some scattered sheds.

Beneath a tree could be seen the legs of a deck chair, most of which was obscured by an enormous newspaper. The newspaper descended to reveal a spry man in camping shorts. "You are welcome to my palace," said the chief in a plummy accent. He led us to his office, where he told us the history of the Chitambe tribe. He was committed to land conservation, he told us, and he rode around on his bicycle each year to visit every one of his 90,000 subjects.

Drinking the Coca-Cola he had given us, we told him how beautiful Zambia was, and how kind his tribesmen had been to us, and a little bit about America. The chief passed a guest book for us to sign. Outside, he showed us around the grounds. The three low buildings were for his three wives; he spends a week with one, a week with the next, and a week with the third. When we mentioned our practice of having only one wife and living with her full-time, he wondered, "Don't you end up arguing a lot?"

The chief had his picture taken with each of us under the flag. As we were leaving he explained, sotto voce, that it was customary to leave some small trinket after such a meeting. We gave him a few dollars for his education fund, and then one of us offered a hat she had planned to give to a child. It was a sort of squashed tennis hat made of bright plaid with large figures of Bert and Ernie sewn on the front. Chief Chitambo put on the hat, and, when he had it adjusted perfectly, we did a group picture. Then we piled back into our vehicle, and the chief, like Willie Momba, stood in the road and waved until we turned a corner and were out of sight.

By the time we arrived at the small Kasanka National Park, the moon was full and the valley smelled of flowers. Gavin woke us in our comfortable rooms at Wasa Lodge the next morning before sunrise, and we climbed a tall, rickety ladder into the highest branches of a tree. From there, as the sun lifted the steam, we saw herds of the rare sitatunga antelope. Gavin had brought a thermos; we drank tea and munched biscuits and heard the first birdsong. One of us had to fly to London that day, and so we headed to Lusaka. It was a sad day, and a long one, too.

Lusaka is a pit: ugly, dirty, crowded, and smelly. We stayed outside town at a plush lodge. Our rooms had modern light fixtures, and hot water came out of the tap whenever you turned it on, and there was even a swimming pool—all quite welcome after the swamps. When I headed to my rondavel after dinner, I found it surrounded by zebras, grazing on the verdant lawn. When I slowly approached they stepped not more than three feet aside. I stopped at the door and looked at one, and she returned my gaze. If you have spent a week looking through binoculars and craning your neck to see animals properly, such sudden intimacy is heady stuff. The zebra and I stared curiously like strangers on a train; and then, as though she had found out all she needed, she turned and trotted off.

The next day brought another long drive. We stopped once in a large village, and because it was Sunday there were churchgoing people in their churchgoing clothes, and they came out singing. We visited a market, where we bought patterned fabric. The sun was dipping by the time we reached northern Kafue National Park. We collected firewood in a low gorge and arrived in near darkness at our campsite. Gavin asked us politely not to help set up camp, as we would only be in the way, so we took a bottle of wine down to the river and watched the stars come out.

If I had to choose one favorite Zambian park, it would be Kafue. The animals were not so different from the animals elsewhere, nor were the trees, but things were somehow especially elegant, as though nature had been in a landscaping mood when she put it all together. We saw our first leopard there, as sensual and spotted and diffident as we'd anticipated. We saw cheetahs. For three days we drove through the hills, and took long afternoons for walking and reading and writing postcards, and slept at night in our tents. Then we drove south half the length of Kafue, arriving at 25-mile-long Lake Iteshi-Teshi. We climbed onto the boulders where the rock hyraxes, or dassies, little mammals with rodent-like features, gathered to sun themselves, and looked across the lake. I have seen many sunset views but none has surpassed that one. Lake Iteshi-Teshi was primeval, like the first day of creation, with hippos, zebras, and one boat: a little canoe making its way across the middle ground like a detail added by a sentimental painter. The air was exquisitely clear and full of peace.

The next day we headed into the nearly abandoned southern part of Kafue. The herds of animals—500 buffalo together, even more impalas, troops of wildebeests—looked surprised by us. We saw a hundred pelicans roosting in an acacia tree, its leaves completely white from their droppings. We followed the turquoise flight of a lilac-breasted roller. Finally we came to a clearing in which the sun focused itself bright, an enchanted place. Beneath a spreading mopani tree, Gavin and Marjorie pitched camp. We watched the moon rise and had honest talks while the fire burned down to firefly embers.

In the morning we drove through more wilds, stopped in Livingstone to shop, and then crossed at Victoria Falls into Zimbabwe. At our hotel there, I found my wallet waiting for me. A worker in Luangwa had found it and managed to reach American Express, which had obtained my itinerary and facilitated delivery. My cash was all there.

That night we put on whatever crumpled but presentable clothes we found in the bottoms of our suitcases, and headed off to the Victoria Falls Hotel for supper. There was a band; there was dancing; we ordered from menus and drank champagne toasts to the bush. When, in the morning, we said good-bye to Gavin and Marjorie, we had that slight pang of an intensity ended, the same feeling I had when I left college, that things might be otherwise and fine but would never be quite like this again.


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