The Lower Zambezi: fishing, birding & big game spotting!
I left Lilongwe with a small group of people on the Proflight to Lusaka, mid Rugby World Cup final. Big error my friends! As a Scottish lady I missed the opportunity to let my English pals know just how happy I was that South Africa had won and they hadn’t! Anyway, I can safely say that after 10 days in the Lower Zambezi I forgot that the World Cup had ever happened and instead was absolutely consumed with my new love of this park.
After 10 years in the industry it can be quite hard to surprise me, after all, I know the tricks of guides pretending to get lost and surprising us with a bush dinner and had a fair few incredible sightings. However, this place has left a permanent imprint on my heart, from the purely INSANE wildlife, to the standard of guiding (one of my guides sniffed out a leopard from its urine… more about that later) to the level of service – it was world class and impressed me to no end! The lodges (all of them, not just the highest priced), provided experiences I have never had before and their attention to detail amazed me. It’s fair to say if you see me at a trade show or need a quote from now on, it’s going to include this magical park or I’m going to get ‘stuck’ here in my presentations.
We flew with Proflight into Jeki, it is very quick and incredibly scenic. As it is so short you don’t have much time to climb into the clouds, so you can view all the farmlands as you leave Lusaka, then very quickly the edges of the park come into view, flying over the Zambezi River with great aerial views of the elephants, hippo and various larger game in the park.
Once landed, depending on how busy your flight is, you are met by a fleet of lodge vehicles, each ready to whisk their guests off to camp. I was spending my first night at Anabezi – “Would you like a slow game drive into camp with some sundowners or a Ferrari safari to your room to freshen up and a sundowner in camp?” asked my guide. Of course I was going on a game drive, accompanied by the beautiful, Tara, the lodge host who made a brilliant companion throughout my stay!
As a *bit* of a feminist I love meeting other ladies in the bush and geeking out over the wildlife and life in the bush as a lady, and Anabezi even have a female guide here so I was in good company. As soon as we started driving, I was blown away by the landscape of the Lower Zambezi, the winter thorn forests are the exact backdrop you see in all those pictures of elephants standing on their hind legs to reach the leaves in Mana Pools, just on the other side of the river.
Anabezi + Kayila
There seemed to be endless regal elephant bulls here and numerous plains game. Even the tree squirrels looked good in this light and this backdrop! We stopped for a few G+Ts (is it really a sundowner if you don’t have a G+T?) before a brief night drive. The wildlife in this area is just mind blowing, I’ll go through our various sightings as we go, but already I had seen elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion all within my first few hours in the park.
Tara told me they are lucky in that area in that they don’t have to go far to see the game – and she wasn’t lying! I awoke the next day to find 4 male buffalos had had a sleepover on my lawn and there was even lion in camp during the night!
The lodge is raised on wooden walkways so, combined with the guard that accompanies you to and from your room, you feel a safe disconnect as you game view on your way to breakfast. After a quick omelette it was back out on a drive to see the three famous male lions in the area. Something for each lioness’ taste, one of the boys had a black mane, one with a ginger mane and one with a blonde mane… although brothers, I did question if their dads were really the same!
The rooms at Anabezi were massive and very high end. From the huge beds to the indoor and outdoor bathrooms, I made full use of the plunge pool in the November heat. As it was a Saturday night, I allowed myself a glass of wine in the pool under the stars as the dagga boys settled around my room; and a shower under the stars is a must in any setting!
With a mini bar in the room if you are sharing a room with a loved one, one can imagine you may have more than one glass, sadly for me, like the dagga boys outside, I was on my own so I got a well needed early night ready for my early start the next day.
Totally unlike me, I was up just before sunrise (I think much like Christmas morning I was too excited to see what my game drive would bring) and really enjoyed sitting on my deck watching as elephants passed by, crossing the lagoons and of course my boys as they started to wake while the sun rose. As mentioned, the lions were in camp so we headed into a car after breakfast to see them as they settled for the day in the riverbed behind the lodge.
There is only so long you can stare at a lion as it sleeps, they barely move for the noise of a vehicle and it’s only if they have a particularly fun tsetse bite that you may get a flicker of an eye, so we went in search of their females! We cruised through a dry riverbed as a leopard leapt down next to us before we came across the female lions with their cubs.
It’s rare that I travel in a high season and so seeing suckling cubs was an absolute treat for me, cubs are far more active than male lions, much to the annoyance of the female adults, and so make excellent day subjects in the harsh sun. There must have been something in the water or more likely an abundance of it in 2017 because there were baby elephants EVERYWHERE! These (relatively) tiny, grey creatures dotted the forests entertaining us all as they learnt to use their trunks, stumbled after their mothers and learnt the magic of an ear flap! Endless amusement.
During my trip I also got to visit Kayila, Anabezi’s new sister camp based quite far out of the park this is a good place to have cultural interactions as it is based next to a local village. The rooms here are just as lovely as the ones at Anabezi (they just have a communal swimming pool) and the lodge grounds are beautiful. I think this will be a great addition to a stay in the park for those that do want authentic cultural interactions and spend a few gentle days away from the fast-paced safaris!
After a delicious lunch it was time to say farewell to my new friends and head onto Old Mondoro. This seemed to be a theme of my trip, as I waved goodbye, I hastily said I couldn’t imagine the next camp could top this… They each blew me away in their own special way and I have magical experiences and memories from them all.
Old Mondoro is everything you would want from a bush camp, from the friendly well-versed African safari host couple to the thatched chalets with outdoor bathrooms. Each room looked onto the lagoon which was teaming with exciting wildlife that came to wallow in the shallow channel, from buffalos and elephants to baboons, birds and various antelope who came to drink in this croc-and-hippo-free haven. It got to the point where I missed my midday siesta and nearly my night-time sleep because I couldn’t stop checking who was in front of my room and what they were up to! Next time I’ll bring a camera trap…
The next morning, we headed out on the game drive of my life, we had barely left camp when we spotted 4 honey badgers returning to their burrow for the day! We found hunting hyena (unsuccessful), a fish eagle catching catfish, a kite being mobbed by a starling and then a pride of lions just a few meters away from a leopardess hiding in the tall grass just as a herd of elephants walked by! Incredible!
I came back smiling like a kid at Christmas and reluctant to move on, but next up came Sausage Tree Camp for 2 nights which ended up being one of my favourites! The new renovation has turned this bush camp into ultimate luxury and might just be one of my all-time favourite camps! Each ginormous room has its own plunge pool, indoor and outdoor shower, huge bed and mini lounge complete with a mini bar.
Twice whilst in my room after lunch I had elephants moving across from the river bed next to my room to the islands across the channel – A breeding herd with a few babies – all the while I desperately tried to take pictures on my camera, film on my GoPro and take a few selfies in my plunge pool!
The staff in the lodge were something else; from Brian the friendly bar man always ready with a smile and a G+T, who texted his wife to pick up some Chichewa to say to me (Malawi’s local language), to Christopher my private butler who kept my mini bar stocked with my Coke Zero addiction and a fresh bottle of white wine (purely for research purposes). Christopher even ran me a candle lit bath with fresh flowers and a glass of wine after an active canoeing session – can he run boyfriend training camps! They also surprised me with meals all over the lodge, in the river and in the bush, their creativity, attention to detail and personal service was just incredible and really made you feel special.
It was here I got the full range of activities on offer in the area. We started with some game drives with their head guide Ryan, the wildlife was plentiful but what impressed me the most was Ryan’s ability to sniff out the wildlife! No joke, he would slam on the brakes, take a big whiff (yes, I upped my deodorant usage in these few days) and announce ‘cat urine’ where lo and behold shortly after, past walks a male leopard scent marking his territory! Part sniffer dog, part safari guide, Ryan suggested a canoeing trip one afternoon, which was an absolute highlight.
You can get close to the animals on drive but in the canoe, you are looking up at these huge beasts. Treating you like another animal you are often shown a little bit of aggression – after all, this is their territory and much like me with my food, they don’t like sharing! After some thrilling encounters with some of the big game Ryan managed to turn me into a twitcher. No word of a lie, I was spotting birds left right and centre and was super excited to snap the rare half collard Kingfisher!
It was incredible to see so much wildlife so close and all within the canoe and of course sundowners next to a dusting elephant herd was the perfect way to finish the trip. After all that excitement I didn’t think we could top the canoeing, however I was taken on my very first fishing trip the next morning!
Although Scottish, the idea of standing in a wet river in the rain for hours at a time doesn’t thrill me, but sitting on a boat in the Zambezi sunshine with a full cooler box does… I get it, I’m a fisherman now! With low expectations and having caught a few logs I was super surprised to land a 6lb Tigerfish! Not quite sure if I could actually reel it in – they are surprisingly strong those Pisces! – I kept shouting, like a true fisherman, about how big this fish must be but was ultimately chuffed with my first catch and then promptly threw him back in!
It was with a very heavy heart I left Sausage Tree and headed to my next camp. Thankfully, Simon, the manager of Chiawa is an old friend who regularly comes to see us at The Funky Cichlid at Lake Malawi in his off time. Simon kindly introduced me to some of the locals, 2 bull elephants who seem to have also settled into camp.
The chalets here were the traditional old wooden chalets, which are currently being refurbished to be more spaced out. However, they were perfectly comfortable with great open sides so you have views. They also have a beautiful honeymoon chalet slightly away from the rest of the camp with their own pool. With delicious food I headed to bed to fall asleep to the roaring lions nearby!
Then I was onto Chongwe, one of the Time + Tide properties, who also have lodges in South Luangwa and the only lodge in Liuwa! Welcomed by a huge hug by Flossie I immediately felt at home, not to mention Vicky, their marketing manager and friend had set me up with a bottle of red in the room, I promise we are not all alcoholics here in the office!
However, it was lovely to toast the stars that night after retiring to bed listening to the animals! The camp is based on a lagoon inlet and so is teaming with wildlife both day and night.
One of my many highlights was the day guard, Charles who took me on a mini birding tour (I had full on decided I was a twitcher at this point!) to see some of the baby woodpeckers in camp!
All the tents have prime river views and they have a big communal pool and special hide. Whilst here I was lucky enough to have a quick blast around the suites and the private house, which are well worth the upgrade. The house looks a little like something out of the Flintstones (in the best possible way) where each room is carved off into the rock formations, large four poster beds and African décor. It is completely self-contained even with its own set of staff, jetty and pool and is a great place for families or groups to stay.
Whilst here there was a group with a birthday among us so we were surprised after an eventful night drive to a bush dinner complete with a birthday cake and staff dance, which just goes to show how the staff go out their way to make your stay enjoyable and special!
Whilst Chongwe is technically just outside the park in the GMA, the park has no boundaries and neither do the animals! We saw a large sleeping male lion almost next to mating leopards just meters from camp and all outside the park boundary so the only territories you should worry about are the animals’!
From Chongwe I moved onto Royal Zambezi. I have known Lauren their marketing manager for a few years from trade shows, having followed her Instagram stories and many vivacious tales I was equally excited to visit the lodge. And as it turns out I wasn’t the only one! We had the pleasure of a minister staying here too. I must add, all guests feel like a minister when they arrive and the lodge gave me the ‘royal’ treatment by upgrading me to a beautiful suite at one end of the lodge.
After a very long lunch with their hilarious manager Hannah, I rolled along to my room to find I had a cool and inviting plunge pool at the end of my deck. Hannah sent along a personalised G+T from the bar and basking like the hippos in the river seemed inevitable! As soon as I got in the locals decided this seemed like a fun idea and I was quickly surrounded by 3 elephants and a bushbuck! Incredible!
After making my retreat before afternoon tea I found a present from Lauren on my bed a beautiful royal hat, which I wore with pride for my entire stay! Hannah told me about their new hide and waterhole, a big fan of all things photographic, Viktor my guide and 2 guests headed off to see what it had attracted, and OMG, WHAT IT ATTRACTED!
Now I keep talking about these drives of my lifetime but what came next was truly magical. Around 15 minutes out of camp we swung around a corner to find a tiny new-born elephant…we are talking minutes old. The umbilical cord still dangling from her mother as she desperately started the unenviable job of covering the baby in dust and burying the afterbirth so as to not attract predators just after she had gone through labour. The wee soul could barely stand yet trying desperately to heave itself up onto its wobbly legs and use its flippy floppy trunk to search for its mother’s milk.
Viktor told us once we left and the dusting was done it was likely she would lie down to let the calf feed so as to save their energy. We could have turned the car around and gone back to the lodge and I would have already been thrilled with what we’d seen but we pushed on towards the waterhole. We soon came across a female lion cub (most likely 2 years old) lying by a baobab meowing for her family, thinking the pride was in the area we headed to the water anticipating they may come to drink.
The droughts have been particularly bad this year so any source of water is a hotspot for wildlife and the new waterhole had been firmly stamped on the map. With lots of elephants, waterbuck, zebra, impalas and birds already at the water, we climbed into the hide with a cooler box and shut the door. Not long after we were in there, elephants were getting vocal and the plains game twitchy and as sunset began, the lionesses and their cubs showed up for a sundowner of their own!
After sunset we carefully got back in the vehicle just as 500 buffalo turned up to drink. We thought it unlikely the lions would hunt – there were only 2 adults in the pride but they are opportunistic so we vowed to come back early the next day to find out.
Surprised again with a beautiful bush dinner it was nice to chat to the other guests about their experiences at the lodge and time in Zambia. Much to my surprise most of the table came from Lusaka, so this hidden gem of a lodge was well-known by the local market!
The next day I teamed up on a drive with the owners of Bushtracks and headed back to the hide, the lions and buffalo had moved on and perhaps pleasantly or disappointingly no one had been eaten! I spent the whole morning at the hide with my new friends helping me with my birding skills and sharing tales of life in Africa.
The industry is a small friendly family so you always know someone who knows someone so we had plenty to chat about and before we knew it, we were heading back for lunch. Hannah very kindly joined me and we had some great bush-girl chit-chats before I headed off to my next stop!
I was off to Zambezi Grande, a very new lodge on the riverbank, I was told it used to be a private house turned into a lodge – I don’t know who lived there before but I would happily swap my city shoes for slops and retire here!
A keen one for fishing, they had a very luxurious boat with leather recliner seats and lots of spaces for a few obligatory fishing beers! What I loved here too was they boated you up for game dives into the park pretty far down river to the beautiful winter thorn forests, either driving or boating back depending on whether you came back for lunch.
Having heard about a buffalo kill the day before we chose to drive back after a morning walk where we were circled several times by lion but failed to see them! We managed to find the lion and buffalo in question; with a full belly, he had left his prize by the river as he went to rest… schoolboy error as the crocs were slowly dragging it into the water for their lion’s share!
Cruising into the park in the morning by boat was incredibly peaceful and also allowed us to have a peek onto the Zimbabwean side of the river (Mana Pools National Park) where we saw a beautiful herd of Eland!
Zambezi Grande has a really lovely team of staff including Obert their manager. A safari industry Great, Obert could tell you stories until the sun came up about his life all over Africa, truly a great host he was incredibly entertaining and a wonderful asset to the lodge.
Full disclosure it is pronounced Grand not Grand-e like Ariana…whilst I had added some flare I also got severely teased by the other lodges – ha-ha!
The time came for me to head to my final lodge (well done for hanging in to the end) to Baines River Camp, and lo and behold it was Debs their manager’s birthday!
Partnered up with some American couples, I had a blast on my game drive in the afternoon, spotting the lions from the Royal waterholes, before a huge 3 course delicious dinner with Debs and a long-time revisiting client!
After a few wines celebrating, we thought it would be a great idea to go on a game drive at 3am to see what nocturnal animals we could find, as they had gone out at 4.30 the day before and saw a lion killing a warthog! A little bleary eyed and perhaps not as sharp eyed as I usually was it was incredible to see the flexibility Baines had and the lengths they went to for guests! Although no kill, it was super nice to be able to go on such an early drive, mainly to escape the heat and to try and see those famous nocturnal animals (of which Aardvark are numerous)! And then sadly all too soon it was time to fly home, a quick stop in Lusaka and I was back in Malawi!
We are not meant to have favourites but this park may have just stolen the top spot for me! I will be back!