African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River
Lower Zambezi National Park
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.