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NOTHING BEATS A SAFARI HOLIDAY (IN ZAMBIA)

(Posted 01st April 2020)

By Muloongo Muchelemba, www.ongolo.com

Nothing beats a Safari holiday!

Photo Credit: Muloongo Muchelemba

South Luangwa National Park in the Eastern part of my home country, Zambia, is hands down my favourite holiday destination. South Luangwa is called a hidden gem among safari enthusiasts for its high concentration of wild life with at least 60 animal species and over 400 bird species.

South Luangwa offers amazing sightings of four of the Big Five animals: Buffaloes, Elephants, Leopards and Lions. Unfortunately, the Rhinoceros is now extinct after many years of poaching. It is ironic because the term “Big Five” was originally coined by hunters to describe the most difficult animals to find on foot and is now used as the minimum standard expected of a game drive.

South Luangwa is also where the legendary Conservationist, Norman Carr, pioneered the concept of the walking safari which gives tourists a rare opportunity to get close to wildlife. Don’t worry – all the walking safaris are accompanied by highly qualified safari guides and armed staff.

I love going on safari! The bush is the only place in the world where I can truly unplug from modern life as most safari camps do not have modern necessities such as television and Wi-Fi but do have electricity and running (hot) water. One has to be comfortable with the silence which is sometimes interrupted by the sound of Vervet monkey calls – a sign that a predator is in the vicinity. I’ve done some of my best thinking and writing in the bush as the quiet improves my clarity of thought.

A lion’s favourite meal! Photo Credit: Muloongo Muchelemba

The second thing I appreciate is that watching animals in their natural habitat puts life into perspective. You don’t know the meaning of stress until you put yourself in the shoes of an antelope which doesn’t know if it will live through the night. Every night. Humans have it so easy in comparison. We worry about so many unimportant, irrelevant things.

Lastly, safaris teach me so many things that are applicable to human life. For example, an ecosystem is best understood by observing the interconnectedness among species and why each one – big and small – has an important role to play. The main contribution by ants is turning nutrients in soil, which supports the growth of vegetation on which herbivores feed. These herbivores support small animals like Baboons which feed on elephant dung (elephants only digest 40% of the ~200kg of food they eat per day) and Oxpecker birds that feast on ticks buried on the backs of Zebras, thus saving the animal with the best-bottom-in-the-bush from tick infestation. At the top of the food chain are the carnivores, who feast on the herbivores.

MBA classes should be studying the wild! I wrote my chapter on office politics for my first book, The Millennials’ Gaido to Work, during one of my safari trips.

Tips for planning your safari

When to go

One can go on safari all year round. In my opinion, the best time to go is between June-August when the temperatures are cool and when the dry grass makes it easier to see animals. Zambia is blessed with sunny blue skies all year round so the day temperature in winter (June-August) is pleasant. October and November are really hot, even for natives, so I personally would not recommend those months even though I have spent one birthday (in November) in South Luangwa. The Emerald season from January to April is considered the low season (due to the rains) but is great for getting a good bargain. It also offers lush, green backgrounds for amazing photos.

How to get there

International airlines such as South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, RwandAir and Emirates, fly into the capital city, Lusaka. From there, it is a 40 mins plane ride on the local airline, Proflight to Mfuwe Airport in the Eastern Province of Zambia. Most camps are a 1-2hr drive from the airport, with plenty to see on the way.

Where to stay

South Luangwa offers a wide range of accommodation from the uber-luxurious Chinzombo to basic campsite accommodation for backpackers.

I stayed at Sanctuary Chichele Presidential Lodge during my first visit during my first visit to South Luangwa, which is a grand colonial lodge set on a hilltop.

I needed brick and mortar to ease me into the concept of safari. What I remember most about Chichele was the excellent service (from the safaris to the dining experience) and the most stunning sundowner.

I tried Mfuwe Lodge next, which is located in the Game Management area and is more rustic than Chichele but felt bit more authentic. My chalet was next to a hippo-infested lagoon which was noisy and kept me up on the first night but I slept soundly the rest of my stay. Mfuwe is world-famous for elephants walking through the foyer. It has a nice swimming pool for cooling down during the day and I had a wonderful massage overlooking the lagoon. The guides are exceptional!

During my last trip, I decided to stay right in the National Park itself at a camp called Tena Tena, which was the most luxurious of the three in my opinion. The tented room was just exquisite, with a comfortable king-size bed and an outdoor shower area which requires one to be brave to take a bathroom break in the middle of the night. I heard Vervet monkey calls on my first night and thought it best to stay in my tent it but by the second night I was prepared to duel with anything. As a backup, I made sure to tip Steve, the night watchman, with K100 ($6) every night with specific instructions to save me first in the event of an animal attack, which has never happened before. Between the Vervet monkeys, whom I would hire any day to provide my personal security, and the night watchman, camping within the National Park is not nearly as scary as you’d think.

What does your typical day look like?

Guests are given the option of doing two game drives or one walking safari + one game drive, every day. The day starts very early, around 5.30am with a wake-up call followed by a quick breakfast. The first game drive starts before dawn when the temperatures are still cool and offers the opportunity to see a kill. Most predators hunt at night and sleep during the day. Lions can sleep for upto 20hrs a day. I finally understood our family cat’s behaviour.

The game drives last for 2-3hrs, with drivers relying on other drivers in the park to alert them of sightings. Most drives are uneventful and spent observing animals. However, in 2017 my Mfuwe guide and drive sensed that a female elephant with a baby was getting upset by our presence – flapping ears and a leg up are a dangerous sign – so we quickly drove off. An hour later we met a young European tourist and guide from another camp who had encountered the same angry elephant and escaped her charge by driving in reverse. As you would expect from Millennials, it was the highlight of his trip.

Guests return to the camps around 10am and are offered mid-morning tea. Lunch is served around noon. I typically spend my afternoons taking a siesta or reading a book. Some lodges like Mfuwe have a swimming pool but most camps understandably do not – you don’t want to be swimming when a thirsty lion comes looking for water in the dry season. Then it’s time for afternoon tea around 3pm followed by an afternoon drive from 4-7pm. Then dinner and socialising with other guests. I am usually asleep by 10pm.

What to bring:

Clothing: it is important to wear only khaki, olive and brown coloured clothes. Black and blue colours attract flies and will make your tripe game drive miserable. Bright colours distract the wildlife and must be avoided. The whole point of a safari is to blend in with the environment. A wind breaker is handy for the cold nights in winter and a good safari hat to protect from the sun during the day.

Camera: bring a good SLR, different lens especially a super telephoto zoom lens e.g. 200-600mm Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Super Telephoto Zoom. Extra memory cards are a must – one can never take enough photos

Binoculars: preferably a hunting one, to spot elusive animals like the leopard

Drone: a license is required from the Department of Civil Aviation to operate a drone in the national park. I’m not sure how easy it is to get one, so I leave mine at home. The ground is the best vantage point anywhere. Best to ask your tour operator for advice before you pack it

Essentials: sunblock and insect repellent at a minimum. The lodges also provide repellent

Loose change: Even though tipping is not mandatory, I give my guides and drivers about $3 each (K50) each time we go on a drive. Some of them are seasonal employees so the extra income is most welcome. When I told my last guide (September 2019) that I wasn’t leaving the National Park until I had seen a leopard, I got my wish just minutes before I had to return to the lodge and then on to the airport. Take care of people and they too will take care of you.

So, what are you waiting for? Visit Zambia: the real Africa!

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