African Diaries – Kenya’s Magical Mara

African Diaries – Kenya’s Magical Mara

I was into the second week of my journey around Kenya, a country I had approached with some trepidation because of its established reputation as one of the premiere safari destinations in Africa. This popularity had long attracted hordes of tourists, a situation at odds with my predilection for off the beaten track places. Fortunately, in the early stages of planning my trip, I had come across Gamewatchers Safaris and their four, intimate Porini (Swahili for “in the wild”) Camps. Now, after memorable stays at the  Amboseli and Rhino camps, I was headed for the legendary Maasai Mara.

A Mara welcome – Topi female with calfs..

Named for its ancestral inhabitants, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is surrounded by a number of conservancies. The total area under conservation covers 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) to form the Greater Mara ecosystem, locally known simply as The Mara. It was deep into one of these conservancies, just northeast of the Reserve, that I was now landing.

 

Mara Porini Camp

Giraffes were a frequent sight in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy..

The Safarilink Cessna made a quick stop for me at the tiny Siana Springs airstrip, where my guide and spotter awaited. Within minutes, the three of us were rocking along a rough dirt trail and across streams swollen by the early onset of autumn rains. This was iconic Maasai country, dotted with bomas, the distinctive hamlets of squat, flat-roofed mud huts within their protective circle of thorny fences.Tall men draped in flowing crimson shúkàs went about daily activities. Children waved as our Land Rover drove by, before returning their attention to the cattle they were minding. Soon signs of human activity faded away and the prairie morphed into wooded rolling hills. Cattle was replaced by antelopes, giraffes and zebras.The short ride to the camp was stretching into a game drive.

A harem of impalas were often seen near the camp.

Nestled within a grove of soaring yellow-barked acacia, in a vast area set aside by the local Maasai landowners of the Ol Kinyei Conservancy for the exclusive use of the guests, the intimate Masa Porini Camp had the charm of a timeless well-kept secret. While my spacious, eco-friendly tent featured solar electricity, a private bathroom with hot showers and flush toilets – the norm in all Porini Camps – everything blended seamlessly into the rough hewn decor. My large veranda overlooked a permanent brook where a large harem of impalas, its dominant buck in the lead, visited frequently during my stay.

A Resident Pride

The resident pride.- roused from their nap.

Games viewing opportunities were many, both within the conservancy as a destination onto itself or as a drive through on the way to day-long drives into the Maasai Mara National Reserve a mere 17 kilometers (10 miles) away. In addition to the constant sightings of a wide variety of grazing animals and smaller predators, the most remarkable moment of my stay at Mara Porini was and encounter with a large resident pride of lions. We came across a dozen of them, lazily rousing from their afternoon siesta in the high savanna grass.

Resident pride lionesses – getting into stalking formation.

Suddenly they began rising to attention in a slow, intently coordinated move, as they sensed an approaching herd of zebra. It was fascinating to observed them stealthy come into a stalking formation, until some indiscernible alert sent the herd fleeing at a gallop. The zebras managed a narrow escape and the lions returned with feign nonchalance to their grassy lounging spot.

 

 

Porini Lion Camp

The stylish dining tent and lounge overlooked the bush.

My next destination, and the last stop of my trip, was Porini Lion Camp, some 15 kilometers (10 miles) further west in the Olare Orok Conservancy, on the immediate northern border of the National Reserve, an area reputed for its abundance of “big cats.” 

Strung along the bank of the Ntiakatiak River, a seasonal river with some permanent hippo pools, Porini Lion featured oversized tents of the latest design. All outer walls were floor to ceiling zippered panels that could be completely open from inside the tent to reveal mesh panels for outstanding light and air circulation. The clean-lined pale wood furniture in a contemporary Italian design style enhanced the serene atmosphere of the  camp.

A cheetah family – feeding on mother’s fresh impala kill.

The frequent sightings here included not only lions but also and most notably a cheetah and her three tiny cubs, and the occasional leopard on the prowl. We also came across a mating pair of black rhinos, an especially exciting encounter as the population of rhino had been poached to near extinction by the early 1980, having dropped as low as 18 individuals. A effective rhino surveillance unit was subsequently established and the Mara had then become the only protected area in Kenya with an indigenous population of black rhinos. Numbers had been slowly increasing to an estimated 35 at the time of my visit (n.b. today’s estimate is around 50).

Newborn Elephants

Newborn elephant calf – learning to suckle.

However, the most unforgettable moments of my visit to Porini Lion came from an encounter with a breeding herd of elephants. I had the amazing privilege to witness a newborn calf, barely one-hour old, take its first unsteady steps, and its efforts to figure what to do with its unwieldy nasal appendage before it finally began suckling. A few feet away, a sturdier week-old cousin was trying to uproot a twig, before loosing interest and taking off, puppy-like, in hot pursuit of a bird.

With its exceptional game viewing, excellent accommodations, and as with all Porini properties, superior guiding and service, Porini Lion was the ideal grand finale to my Kenya adventure. One that I yearn to repeat once the current global health emergency has abated.

Mara giraffes and friends.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there –  Porini Mara Camp is located the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, northeast of the Masai Mara reserve in southwestern Kenya. The nearest airstrip, Siana Springs, was nine miles (15 kilometers) away. The Ol Kinyei Conservancy was 155 miles (250 kilometers) from Nairobi by road, a journey that was estimated to take four to five hours. Porini Lion Camp In the Olare Orok Conservancy on the northern border of the Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya. The nearest airstrip, Ol Kiombo, was eight miles (13 kilometers) away. Olare Orok Conservancy was 155 miles (250 kilometers) from Nairobi by road, a journey that was estimated to take four to five hours.
  • Both camps and their host conservancies were cooperative ventures between Gamewatchers Safaris (Porini’s parent company) and local Maasai landowners. The majority of the camps’ staff were native tribesmen.
  • One of the longest established safari outfitters based in East Africa, Gamewatchers Safaris also own and manage the intimate, eco-friendly Porini Camps in Kenya. For well over a decade they have been and remain frequent recipients of  “Best Green Tour Operator” and “Best Social Impact” awards at the annual Eco Warrior Award event held by Ecotourism Kenya. They are also internationally recognized, with many awards such as National Geographic “Top Ten Safari Outfitters”, and  “Africa’s Responsible Tourism Award 2019 and 2018” in the World Travel Awards.
  • WTTC Safety Stamp and WHO Covid-19 Safety Standards — The Porini Safari Camps were among the first in Kenya to be checked and certified to re-open with new Covid-19 safety standards in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Kenya Ministry of Health requirements. They  also have the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Safety Stamp and their teams have completed “Covid-19 Sensitization” training with the Kenya Red Cross Training Institute.

Location, location, location!

Mara Porini Camp

Porini Lion Camp

African Diaries — In the Land of Rhinos

African Diaries — In the Land of Rhinos

For seasoned and armchair travelers alike, the very name of Kenya has long been evocative of one of Africa’s prime safari destinations. Over recent decades, this has fueled the development of an advanced group-tourism infrastructure to accommodate the influx of visitors – and with it the potential for inflicting considerable stress on the local environment and native culture.

Porini Camps are located in secluded game-rich conservancies, such as the foothills of Kenya’s central Aberdare Range.

Fortunately, a few eco-conscious safari organizers, in partnership with the native community, have addressed the challenge of providing visitors a personalized, low-impact tourism experience while giving local landowners a chance to improve their quality of life and to preserve the land and wildlife for the next generations. A notable example of this successful cooperation is Gamewatchers Safaris, who owns and manages its four intimate Porini (Swahili for in the wild) camps: Amboseli Porini Amboseli Porini, Porini Rhino, Mara Porini and Porini Lion, within conservancies adjoining the famed Amboseli and Maasai Mara National Park, as well as the largest rhinoceros sanctuary in East Africa.

Porini Rhino Camp

Elephants gather around a waterhole near Porini Rhino Camp.

Located within the 36,500 hectare (90,000 acre) Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Porini Rhino Camp sat on a verdant plateau between the foothills of the Aberdare Range and the stately snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya. Although the area straddled the equator, the altitude (around 2,000 meters or 6, 500 feet) made for a temperate climate with cool nights, and a landscape of wooded grassland reminiscent of alpine pastures. But there was nothing alpine about the fauna.

Silverback jackals stealthily stalk a prey.

Ol Pejeta was home to the critically endangered black rhino (a.k.a. hook-lipped rhino) as well the near threatened white rhino (a.k.a. square-lipped rhino). Following a successful black rhino translocation in 2007 from the Solio Rhino Sanctuary (in the northeast of the Aberdare Range), with 78 animals at the time of my visit, Ol Pejeta was one of the largest black rhino sanctuaries in East Africa (n.b. at the time of this writing a decade later, the number of black rhinos in Ol Pejeta has reached 132). Within minutes of entering the conservancy, I had sighted a white rhino – my first rhino sighting ever after two previous trips to the African bush (both in places where, sadly the massive beasts had been poached to near extinction).

A Close Encounter

A close encounter with an annoyed black rhino.

But the most adrenalin-charged moment my entire visit to Kenya occurred the next morning. I was the solo passenger in one of the camp’s custom game-viewing land-cruisers, along with my Samburu (local ethnic cousins of the Maasai) guide-driver and game spotter, driving crosscountry in search of the elusive black rhino. The young spotter pointed silently into the dense brush and we came to a halt. In my excitement, I made an inexcusable rookie mistake. Camera in hand, I jumped up to stand on my seat and brace myself on the roll-bar of the open-roof truck. Startled by the sudden movement, the male rhino charged abruptly – at an amazing speed!  He got within a few meters from us before changing his mind and making a 90-degree turn to head at a gallop into the brush. Only then did we let out our collective breath.

A Haven for Endangered Species

The rare Grévy’s zebra is indigenous to the area,

I experienced several additional rhino sightings during my stay, often at close range, but mercifully none as exciting. Beside rhinos, game-viewing was overall superb at the camp, both in its diversity and for the abundance of rare species thriving in the protected conservancy. We regularly came across large journeys of reticulated giraffe, an endangered sub-species indigenous to the area, and small groups of Grevy’s zebra. Also known as imperial zebra, it is the largest living equid, the most untrainable and most threatened of the three zebra sub-species. 

Highly endangered chimpanzees found sanctuary at Ol Pejeta.

Ol Pejeta was also home to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, arguably the only place in Kenya where this highly endangered primate species could be found. While chimpanzees are not native to Kenya, the sanctuary was established in 1993 with an agreement between the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Jane Goodall Institute. Sweetwaters provided a long-time refuge to 43 chimpanzees evacuated from their Central and West African countries of origin due to civil wars outbreaks.

This exceptional combination of rare, endangered wildlife and stunning views of the snowy peak of Mount Kenya, far from the popular safari circuits, made my stay at the secluded Porini Rhino Camp a unique experience that I treasure to this day.

A journey of reticulated giraffes on the move across the foothills of the Aberdare Range.

Good to Know

  • Getting there —  By road: Located in the central plateau, northwest of Mount Kenya, Porini Rhino Camp was one hour’s drive from Nanuyki, the capital of the Laikipia East District, 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Nairobi. By air: Scheduled round-trip flights from Nairobi to the Nanuyki airstrip were available via Safarilink. They could be arranged through Gamewatchers Safaris, as was the transportation from the airstrip to the camp.
  • One of the longest established safari outfitters based in East Africa, Gamewatchers Safaris also own and manage the intimate, eco-friendly Porini Camps in Kenya. For well over a decade they have been and remain frequent recipients of  “Best Green Tour Operator” and “Best Social Impact” awards at the annual Eco Warrior Award event held by Ecotourism Kenya. They are also internationally recognized, with many awards such as National Geographic “Top Ten Safari Outfitters”, and  “Africa’s Responsible Tourism Award 2019 and 2018” in the World Travel Awards.
  • WTTC Safety Stamp and WHO Covid-19 Safety Standards — The Porini Safari Camps were among the first in Kenya to be checked and certified to re-open with new Covid-19 safety standards in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Kenya Ministry of Health requirements. They  also have the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Safety Stamp and their teams have completed “Covid-19 Sensitization” training with the Kenya Red Cross Training Institute.

 

Location, location, location!

Porini Rhino Camp

African Diaries — Kenya’s Maasai Country

African Diaries — Kenya’s Maasai Country

Kenya has long been synonymous with safari. An early leader in the preservation of game and its natural habitat, the country now features close to 50 national parks, game reserves and private conservancies covering some 20 percent of its total landmass. The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo) can all be found here, as do cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and many other carnivores and herbivores, large and small. 

Giraffes congregate around under a flat-topped acacia.

But so can herds of minivans filled with eager tourists, drawn to Kenya by visions of abundant game roaming across endless open spaces punctuated by flat-topped acacias, and proud Maasai in crimson robes minding their cattle in the distance. As Kenya’s popularity as a safari destination increased, the country has developed one of Africa’s most advanced tourism infrastructure, and with it the potential of a considerable threat to its environment and native cultures.

Playful Maasai children pop out of the bush to check us out.

These were the considerations that had kept me from realizing a long held desire to visit this iconic safari country. Until I came  across a local organization reputed for addressing the challenge of enhancing the tourism experience while giving local landowners a chance to improve their quality of life in the present, and preserve land and wildlife for the next generations.

 

Gamewatchers Safaris

Amboseli Porini lounge and dining tent.

With its four Porini (Swahili for into the wild) camps: Amboseli Porini, Porini Rhino, Mara Porini and Porini Lion, Gamewatchers Safaris offered small tented camps (between six and ten tents depending on the venue) on private conservancies located in close proximity to the famed Amboseli and Maasai Mara National Parks. The exception was Porini Rhino Camp, which was in the heart of one of the largest rhinoceros sanctuaries in East Africa, in the shadow of Mount Kenya. In these rigorously eco-friendly tented camps, power was exclusively solar generated, and great efforts were made to minimize the impact of the properties on the environment.

Kisonko Maasai welcome us to the Selenkay Conservency.

The host conservancies were on private land leased from the local Maasai tribes, who received financial benefits and employment opportunities as well as infrastructure development (such as roads and improved access to water). Local tribesmen also had access to training in various aspects of the tourism industry and employment at the camps. As the time of my visit, close to 90 percent of the camps’ staff came from local clans. 

Amboseli Porini

This elephant cow seems unconcerned by our presence.

A secluded camp under the giant umbrella of a cluster of thorn acacia trees within the Selenkay Conservation Area, a 15,000 acre (6,000 hectare) private game reserve at the northern edge of the Amboseli National Park, Amboseli Porini epitomized the timeless romance of Kenya. The distant Mount Kilimanjaro outlined the horizon as the land-cruiser that was delivering me there after a few days on the Indian Ocean seaside entered the Conservancy. A cheetah flashed across the track just ahead of us. A pair of elephant cows and their calves unhurriedly ambled by. Giraffes peered at us over the treetops and potbellied warthog piglets scampered behind their mother into the high grass. By the time we reached the camp, I had already enjoyed an exciting impromptu game drive.

A Maasai Welcome

Maasai mother and child.

Access to the local Maasai community was exceptional at Amboseli Porini. The camp was a cooperative venture between its owners, Gamewatchers Safaris, and the Kisonko clan of the Maasai people who who owned the Selenkay conservation land, which enabled guests to get a close up experience of Maasai daily life and culture. During my stay, I enjoyed nature walks with Maasai guides who introduced me to various aspects of their traditional lifestyle and highlighted how indigenous natural resources were used by the community. We also had insightful conversations about the tribe’s history, current life, challenges and aspirations. And I was introduced to people of the village, invited into their homes to observe the activities of their daily lives as well as enjoy their ceremonial songs and dances

Legendary Game Drives

A blue wildebeest shows its annoyance at our proximity.

Every subsequent drive in one of the custom-designed, open-sided land- cruisers was equally rewarding. A private four-wheel-drive track linked the Conservancy to Amboseli National Park, and the abundance and variety of wildlife in both the conservancy and the park was startling. We consistently came across lions, cheetahs, caracals, hyenas, buffalos, zebras, wildebeests and gazelles; and bird species too numerous to recall. Most thrilling of all was the dense elephant population. At most recent count, over 1,500 of the great pachyderms were said to live in the park, many of them on the move wherever we went; large swaying herds stirring red dust across the plain, unerringly heading toward the grassy swamp in the distance. Unconcerned by our presence, they sometimes came so close to our vehicle that I felt tempted to reach out to them.

The rare gerenuk (giraffe gazelle) is endemic to the Horn of Africa.

My stay at Amboseli Porini was everything I had envisioned a Kilimanjaro safari should be: legendary vistas and superb game viewing, enhanced by comfortable accommodations in an intimate, environmentally responsible setting. Now it was time to head northward to a much more confidential destination in the highlands of central Kenya.

The entire Kisonko Maasai village gathers to welcome us.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Amboseli Porini Camp was located in the Selenkay Conservancy, on the northern boundary of Amboseli National Park in southeast Kenya.. By road —From Nairobi  Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the entry point  for most International visitors to the sountry, it was a 170 kilometer (100 mile), 3-hour drive drive along the Mombasa Road to the Camp. From Mombasa, it was a 434 kilometer (260 mile), 6 hour drive to the camp. By air — Charter flights are also available between Nairobi or Mombasa and the conservancy. In all cases transfers can be arranged through Gamewatchers Safaris.
  • Gamewatchers Safaris, is one of the longest established safari outfitters based in East Africa. They also own and manage the intimate, eco-friendly Porini Camps in Kenya. For well over a decade they have been frequent recipients of  “Best Green Tour Operator” and “Best Social Impact” awards, at the annual Eco Warrior Award event held by Ecotourism Kenya. They are also internationally recognized, with many awards such as National Geographic Top Ten Safari Outfitters, and  “Africa’s Responsible Tourism Award 2019 and 2018” in the World Travel Awards.
  • WTTC Safety Stamp and WHO Covid-19 Safety Standards — The Porini Safari Camps were among the first in Kenya to be checked and certified to re-open with new Covid-19 safety standards in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Kenya Ministry of Health requirements. They have received the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Safety Stamp, and their teams have completed “Covid-19 Sensitization” training with the Kenya Red Cross Training Institute.

A herd of elephants on the move across the Amboseli plain.

Location, location, location!

Amboseli National Park

African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

Having returned from the remote South Luangwa National Park irrevocably enthralled by my first experience in the African wilderness, I was yearning to get back to Zambia. When there is a will… I was off again the following June, to discover the national parks along the Zambezi River, right at the start of the ideal “dry season.”

Lower Zambezi National Park

Byy the end of the rainy season, the Lower Zambezi flood plain turns into a broad expanse of lagoons.

Located on the northern bank of the Zambezi, downstream from Lake Kariba, the Lower Zambezi National Park remains an area of primeval wilderness. This 75-mile (120-kilometer) stretch of land between the Chongwe River and the confluence of the Luangwa River extends 20 miles (32 kilometers) inland to the Zambezi Escarpment. Although the park covers an area of 1,580 square miles (4,092 square kilometers), the escarpment acts as a natural barrier to many species, concentrating most of the game’s activity near the edge of the river.

Hippos rush to the Chongwe River.

The valley was home to many mammal species including hippopotamus, elephant, buffalo, zebra, lion, leopard, genet, civet, and a large number of gazelles. It also offered some of the most abundant and colorful birdlife I had come across anywhere. The river bank was scalloped with channels that created lush islands along the main river. This idyllic environment had led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of luxury camps along the river. My favorites had managed to retain a laidback bush camp vibe.

Chongwe River Camp

The view extended across the Zambezi to the Zimbabwe.

Stretched along the bank of the Chongwe, at the point where it met the Zambezi, the Chongwe River Camp offered a sweeping view of the western boundary of the Lower Zambezi National Park and Zimbabwe’s famed Mana Pools on the far bank of the river. The inspired architecture of the lounge with its curving concrete platforms lined with thick pads and toss pillows, showcased the exuberant wilderness that surrounded the camp. Throughout the day, elephants and buffalos came to the water for a drink or a bath, while pods of hippos filled the river like so many moving islands.

A Goliath Heron takes flight. With a wingspan of 185–230 cm (73–90.5 in), it is the world largest living heron.

Drives across the Chongwe River into the park were always exciting, but my favorite way to explore this unique environment was from the water. Canoeing down the quiet, shady channels was as blissful a safari experience as I have ever come across, enhanced by the expertise of my guide, Wedmore Kumbani. He could unobtrusively stir our canoe to find a leopard stealthily quenching its thirst or a fifteen-foot long Nile crocodile sunning on the bank. I also credit him for introducing me to the joys of birding by allowing me observe close-up the rich birdlife on the river, from the giant Goliath Heron to the jewel-like Malachite Kingfisher.

Memorable first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher.

My first sighting of the latter remains an adrenalin-charged memory to this day. Wedmore spotted one of the tiny birds clinging to a reed and maneuvered us to it. I single-mindedly began shooting while he was nudging the canoe to get me ever closer. Suddenly, from beneath us, a submerged hippo decided to make its presence known. It abruptly surfaced, its flank scraping the side the canoe, sending it spinning. Wedmore skillfully steadied it while I clung frantically to my camera. The bird was long gone by now, but I had memorable images of my eventful first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher, and after calm had returned, of my closest encounter ever with a hippo.

Chiawa Camp

My tented suite featured an open deck with an irresistible claw-footed Victorian bathtub with a view.

Chiawa Camp was my idea of what Eden should be: spectacular views, abondant game activity, and outstanding creature comforts. Nestled under a lush canopy of riverine forest in the heart of the Park, Chiawa blended so unobtrusively into its surroundings that elephants and buffalos routinely paraded within feet of my tent on their way to the river. More than once, the short walk from the lounge to my tent was delayed while a pachyderm ambled down the path, claiming its incontestable right of way. 

An unexpected visitor shows up for lunch at Chiawa.

The two-story open-front lounge sat a short walk up a gentle slope from the edge of the water. The upper deck offered a panoramic view of the river. A telescope made for close up observation of the game hiding in the high undulating grass that covered the small islands nearby. With so many enticements to an armchair safari, the hardest thing about Chiawa was to select from the variety of daily game watching activities, on land and water, available at the camp.

Connecting with a young lion with along the Chilanga channel.

My visit to Chiawa was rich in exceptional moments, such as canoeing along the secluded Chilanga channel. As my guide smoothly navigated the canoe in the dappled shade of overhanging winter thorn acacias, we came upon a pair of lions enjoying a drink a few feet away on the riverbank. I experienced a prolonged spine-tingling eye contact with one the gorgeous felines before we all carried on with our own pursuits. Another moment forever imprinted on my mind, while star-gazing in the warm night echoing with bird calls and hippo snorts, was to discover the Southern Cross, perfectly outlined among the millions of stars in the black velvet of the African sky. Safari doesn’t get any better than this.

Victoria Falls

Mosi-oa-Tunya is the largest sheet of falling water on the planet.

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Mosi-oa-Tunya (“Smoke that Thunders” in the Kalolo-Lozi tribe’s dialect) plunge 108 meters (355 feet) down in a stunning 1.7- kilometer (1.05- mile) wide waterfall across the Zambezi River. Columns of spray can be seen from miles away from the estimated 500 millions cubic meters (150 million gallons) of water per minute that plumet over the edge. British explorer David Livingston is thought to have been the first European to set eyes on the falls (on November 16, 1855), which he named after his queen.

My Tongabezi guide took took me to the edge of the chasm for a close up rainbow experience.

The Falls are within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, a 66 square kilometer (25 square mile) stretch of land that goes from the Songwe Gorge below the Falls in a north-west arc along about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of the Zambian river bank. Roughly one million people visit the Falls each year, which has prompted the development a large tourism infrastructure, especially around the town of Livingston, just upstream from the park, where lodges now crowd the river-frontage and hotel buildings lurk on the horizon. Fortunately further up-river, a few prestigious, long established river lodges have retained their timeless elegance and pristine riverfront environment.

Tongabezi

A magical Tongabezi sunset.

While exchanging experiences with kindred adventurers traveling through the game parks of Zambia, conversation would often drift to favorite lodges and camps. Invariably, someone would bring up Tongabezi. Those who had visited where enthusiastic; those who had not were wistful. Guides and staff always spoke of “Tonga” with respect. As soon as I arrived at Tongabezi, I understood how it had come to be a standard by which Zambian luxury properties were measured.

Al fresco dining at Tongabezi.

Some 20 kilometers (12 miles) upstream from Victoria Falls and Livingstone, across from the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side of the river, Tongabezi was nestled in a  meticulously tended grove of ebony trees overlooking a magnificent bend of the Zambezi River. With its superb service, exquisite cuisine, and the mighty Zambezi shimmering under the midday sun or reflecting the rising moon, it was a serene haven for a gentle re-entry into the outside world after two weeks weeks in the bush. And the perfect venue from which to explore the Falls.

Pied Kingfisher were a constant sight along the river.

My first visit to Mosi-oa-Tunya was at ground level in the company of my guide, who took me along trails that allowed me to get dizzyingly close to the abyss, where I could feel and breathe the spray, and capture perfect rainbows. After this exhilaratingly visceral experience, I went to gaze upon the Falls just as Livingston first did. Tongabezi held the concession for what is now known as Livingston Island, at the head of the Falls. Here, after a short boat ride, I enjoyed a gourmet picnic lunch at the edge of the chasm. David Livingston never had it so good!

Areal view of  the geological evolution of the falls and gorges.

I returned the next day for a bird’s eye view of the Falls, in a small bubble-canopy helicopter that flew me all around the area. In addition to taking in the thunderous natural wonder, this areal perspective gave me a fascinating view of its geological evolution. Since its original formation in the Upper Paleolithic age (20,000 b.c.), six individual gorges have formed, and the Falls have recessed eight times, all previous positions clearly visible from up high.

The Lower The Zambezi National Park stretches between the Zambezi River and the Escarpment.

Good to Know

  • Lower Zambezi — Because of its remote location and limited infrastructure, the Lower Zambezi National Park is not easily accessible. It is best reached via small (loosely) scheduled prop planes to air strips barely larger than a dirt road. However, its pristine isolation and the outstanding density and variety of game congregating along the river, coupled with the luxury of the camps along the river make it superb destination well worth the effort.
  • Chongwe—Chongwe River Camp has nine classic tents under thatch and two private tented ‘suites’, the Albida (two-bedroomed) and the Cassia (one bedroom honeymoon). 
  • Chiawa— The camp is a property of Chiawa Safaris https://www.chiawa.com . It has nine luxury tents that can accommodate up to 16 guests, each raised on wooden decks with river views.
  • Tongabezi—The awards-winning Tongabezi Lodge https://tongabezi.com offers six private Houses and five River Cottages nestled on the banks of the Zambezi River, accommodating two to five guests each.

Location, location, location!

Victoria Falls, Zambia

South Luangwa National Park,

African Diaries—Into Zambia

African Diaries—Into Zambia

First, travel plans for this year ground to a halt in early March. Then came the realization that it could be well into next year before it may be reasonable to begin dusting off my passport. That’s when Africa started calling me – again. But memories will have to do for now.

South Luangwa National Park

On approach for landing in Mfuwe.

My love affair with Africa began well over a decade ago in the South Luangwa National Park, a 3,500 square-mile (9,050 square-kilometer)  stretch of pristine wilderness hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Zambia. After years of yearning, months of planning and a mind-numbing 48-hour succession of flights that had taken me from Houston to the tiny airport of Mfuwe, I was bouncing in an open-top land-cruiser, on a rocky dirt trail heading deep into the park.

The valley draws a rich concentration of game.

Its eastern border follows the Luangwa River as it makes its convoluted way toward the Zambezi River, leaving behind a patchwork of oxbow lakes and lagoons. This remote valley, with its ruggedly varied landscape of savanna and forest, is considered by experts to hosts one of the richest concentration of game in Africa.

 

Comfortable bush camps are nestled along the banks of the Luangwa River.

Unsurprisingly, this has led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of small seasonal bush camps in close proximity to the river. Over the next couple of weeks, I was to visit several of them. Each had a unique character, influenced by its location and the wildlife it attracted. I credit the exhilaration of this first experience for my a lifelong passion for the African bush.

The demise of the giraffe is a bounty for a hyena.

Into the Wild

The hyena’s cub intently takes in the scene.

The two-hour drive to Kuyenda, the camp where I was to spend the next two nights, might be long forgotten by now if not for a couple of images forever imprinted on my mind. First came the breathtaking blood-orange sunset that briefly set ablaze the endless African sky before the entire landscape faded to black. 

Then sometime later, a dead giraffe. My driver detoured off-road into the brush, lights muted, explaining that the carcass of an old male had been reported here earlier in the day, and would I mind if we checked it out? I wouldn’t. The still relatively intact giraffe was sprawled across a small clearing, and a hyena had beat us to it.

Behind her, her cub was peering tentatively out of the shadows. “This is the circle of life in the bush,” my companion commented philosophically. “Within a week the scavengers will have it all cleaned up,” he added, doubtless to assuage my tourist’s sensibilities.

 

Kuyenda

Phil has been active in the valley for over half a century in various wildlife preservation capacities. He is considered one of Zambia’s most respected naturalists.

Kuyenda was a classic African bush camp: four cozy wood and reed private guest rondavels (circular huts) under thatch, with open-air en-suite bathrooms and overhead drum showers, clustered around a spacious open-walled dining and lounge area. This is where we congregated at dawn over a hearty cooked breakfast, four guests from various parts of the world and our host, the resident camp manager and guide, Phil Berry.

Open top land-cruisers are the limousines of the bush.

Game watching meant adapting to the rhythm of the sun and the moon, as the wildlife has since the beginning of time. But the wonder of a pristine new day was well worth the ruthlessly early wakeup call. We settled into the land-cruiser, with Phil stopping to point out every new animal or bird sighting. A herd of skittish impalas snapped to attention as went approached, while baby baboons roughhousing in a tree didn’t even grant us a look.

 

My very first elephant sighting ever!

Then we came upon a venerable bull elephant, standing within twenty feet of our truck, apparently still half asleep himself. My very first elephant in the wild! I’d see many more in the days to come, but that first sighting remains unforgettable, even though he gave us only a perfunctory glance before turning his attention to the foliage of a nearby Mopane tree (an elephant favorite treat) for his breakfast.

The magic of a Kuyenda dusk.

The instant that sealed my fate as a hardcore safari enthusiast came that evening, as we were sipping our Sundowner – alcoholic (or not) beverage of your choice (make mine Gin and Tonic, thank you), usually enjoyed while watching the sun set over an especially scenic vista. We were stopped in the dry, sandy bed of the Manzi River, taking in the the perfect stillness of dusk, when we spotted a pair adult male lions unhurriedly making their silent way across our line of vision.

 

Chamilandu

A family of pukus drops by for a morning drink near the camp.

Chamilandu was the most intimate of the camps I visited on this trip: three spacious tree-houses with outdoor showers, perched on ten-foot high platforms. Each was fully open onto its private deck with a startling 180 degree view of the Luangwa River and the distant the Nchendeni Hills. This privileged riverfront location ensured outstanding game viewing at camp as well as on walks and drives nearby.

An hippo mother and young calf emerge from the river at sunset.

A pleasant morning walk offered an excellent close-up view of the abundant water-fowl population. A sundowner drive took us to a nearby cliff to observe a large pod of hippos as they emerged from the river to browse, and afforded us the treated of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters nesting into the cliff. On the way back we got the added excitement of sighting a leopard stealthily on its way to its nightly errands.

 

Kudu bulls sport impressive spiraling horns.

Other favorite memories of Chamilandu? The ready access to water repeatedly brought herds of elephants to the river, and a varied population of antelopes, among them the majestic spiral-horned kudus. This abundance of antelopes meant predators weren’t far behind. We came across an especially regal male one night, who seemed quite offended by our intrusion.

 

Chindeni

Dawn over the Chindeni lagoon.

Tucked in the shade of ancient ebony trees at the apex of a permanent oxbow lagoon, Chindeni was a verdant oasis in the parched immensity of the park when I visited in the final weeks of the dry season. The four tented guest accommodations were raised on wooden platforms at the edge of a bluff overlooking the lagoon. As was the panoramic lounge, cleverly arranged around the trunk of a giant ebony tree that contributed both a sculptural quality and cooling shade to the structure. It was the perfect spot to enjoy an early pre-drive breakfast while contemplating the dramatic sunrise over the hills.

Lionesses are settling in for their siesta.

While the overall variety of game viewing in and around the camp was impressive, my Chindeni experience is forever associated with lions – a major pride of them! We first spotted them at the end of a morning drive, several females of various ages and a couple of adolescent males, all looking sated and ready to settle down in a shady glade for their afternoon siesta.

Tree-climbing lions are an extremely rare sight.

We returned to the area to look for them at the start of our late afternoon drive, and were rewarded with a startling sight: a tree full of lions! The entire pride was draped high in the branches of a huge winter thorn tree, having climbed there, doubtless in search of a cooling breeze to relieve them from the heavy afternoon heat. Now they were gingerly starting to stir, contemplating the challenge of every treed cat in the world: how to get down?

The Mfuwe Lodge

Elephants are a constant sight at the Mfuwe Lodge.

Although time seemed to stand still during my enchanted stay in in the park, sadly, it hadn’t. With a morning flight out of Mfuwe to start the long journey home, I spent the last two nights of my visit at the Mfuwe lodge. With 18 guest chalets and all the amenities expected from a luxury full service hotel, the Lodge was a good way to ease myself back into the “real world.” Although located within the park, it was a mere five-minute drive from the main gate and 45 minutes away from the airport. As in the camps I was still able to enjoy a day’s worth of game drives.

Elephant and hippo are having a territorial disagreement.

A tiny elephant calf is learning to manage a mud hole.

But the highpoint of my stay unfolded right in front of my chalet. From my balcony overlooking the lagoon, at the time reduced to a series of puddles, I spent an entertaining afternoon watching a mud fight between a hippo and a breeding herd of elephants. The hippo had laid claim to the patch, and in spite of all the persuasion the matriarch elephant could muster, it wouldn’t be dislodged.

The two contestants ultimately pretended to ignore each other, and the pachyderms made the best of whatever slime they could appropriate. 

 

I reluctantly left Zambia, promising myself to return. And so I did, the following year. My main destination was the Zambezi River this time, but I couldn’t resist starting my visit with detour via the South Luangwa National Park.

 

 

Nkwali

Nkwali offers a spectacular view of the park and the river.

I opted to stay in the Game Management Area this time, immediately across the river from the South Luangwa National Park. Discretely tucked into a grove of soaring ebony trees on a prime vantage point of the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, Nkwali coupled the casual atmosphere and intimate proximity to wildlife that only a bush camp can offer with the indulgent amenities of a boutique safari lodge. Its six guest chalets and lounge area offered a spectacular view of the steep far bank of the river and the acacia forest that constituted the boundary of the park.

The private pontoon is an picturesque way to access the park.

For all its superb isolation, Nkwali was less than an hour away from Mfuwe Airport. Access to the park was either via a colorful hand-cranked pontoon near the camp or across the Mfuwe Bridge, 10 kilometers away. Game activity was intense in the Game Management Area as in the park itself, and the the pontoon crossing gave us the unique opportunity to witness at close range the sudden eruption of a domestic argument within a pod of hippos floating nearby.

First close range sighting of a leopard!

The splendid cat indulged me with a photo opportunity.

It was exciting to reconnect with all the familiar wildlife of the bush but the most exhilarating moment came when we began tracking a leopard. I had casually mentioned to my guide, Joseph, that on my previous visit I had only managed a night-time glance at one, and I that I was hoping to get a proper look this time. He made it a matter of professional pride to grant me my wish. Locating the elusive feline took cooperative efforts of Joseph and one of his colleagues. They engaged in an extensive radio dialog to direct us to the appropriate location. They were assisted by the terrorized screeches of a troop of baboons who had apparently just lost one of their own to the feline.

Then suddenly there he was, glaring defiantly at us through a jumble of grass, a magnificent adult male, his spotted coat still showing tell-tale red shadows. He seemed to weigh its options for a while, before strutting nonchalantly out of the brush and across the clearing, and fading once again into the high grass. Definitely the ultimate memory of my visit to Nkwali!

From my chalet at Nkwali, I spent a blissful siesta time watching a herd of elephants wade their way out of the park, across the Luangwa River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Because of its remote location, the South Luangwa National Par is not as readily accessible from North America and Europe as other better known southern Africa safari destinations. This isolation naturally limits the number of visitors, which enhances the authentic bush experience.
  • Staying there—Chamilandu, Chindeni, Kuyenda and the Mfuwe Lodge are properties of The Bushcamp Company. Kuyenda and Chamilandu are open June to November, Chindeni is open May to December and the Mfuwe Lodge is open year-round. Nkwali is a Robin Pope Safaris property. It is opened year-round

A view from the pontoon – A bloat of hippos sunning themselves on the bank of the river.

Location, location, location!

Mfuwe, Zambia