A wildlife odyssey ...through Zambia (Part 1)

| December 3, 2019

Cox & Kings clients Mike & Chris Simm recount their tales from the African bush. Their tailor-made trip took them through three of Zambia’s wildlife reserves, starting in Kafue National Park.

“Knock knock.” 


“It’s 5 o’clock.”


“Hot water is on the table.”

“Thank you. Can you collect us at half past five?”


And so begins another day in the Zambian bush. Collection from one’s accommodation is necessary since hippos and elephants roam the camps at night and it is generally considered inadvisable to confront them, particularly during the hours of darkness or in the pre-dawn light. Collection is usually followed by a bowl of warming porridge as the sun rises above the horizon – blood red, before shading to orange and yellow. At 0600 the adventurous tourist climbs aboard his safari vehicle, wrapped up against the early morning chill and, together with his trusty guide, sets off in search of wildlife. Such starts are necessary since the animals tend to get up early, hunt, eat and then find somewhere shady to snooze the day away.

Sunrise, Kafue National Park, Zambia

Sunrise over Kafue National Park

Anyway, I seem to have got a little ahead of myself. Pursuing the thought to which I gave voice at the end of our Canada trip last year - that I was beginning to feel much happier in the wild places than in the hurly burly of modern life (see Mike and Chris Simm’s blog Making tracks across Canada here) - we had arranged a three-camp safari (covering three very different habitats) in Zambia. For the benefit of history buffs, this is the area formerly known as Northern Rhodesia, which gained independence under Kenneth Kaunda (who, although of advanced years, is still alive) in 1964.

We arrived in the capital, Lusaka, in the early afternoon and, after overnighting in a local boutique hotel in the suburbs, set off the following morning for the 320 kilometre drive to our first destination, Kafue National Park. This is a predominantly flat area and, at 22,400 square kilometres, the second largest park in Africa (beaten only by Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft park).

We arrived in the early afternoon at our destination in the south of the park and were in sufficient time to undertake a swift change of clothing and set off on our first wildlife drive. Our camp was on the banks of the Kafue river and offered a spectacular view of the river itself. The main park area was on the other side, so a short boat ride was required to reach our vehicle.

Any trip on an African river comes with an advisory warning: may contain hippos (or, more accurately, does contain hippos). This renders the journey of some interest, since colliding with one will not only apply rapid braking to the boat, but will also make the creature extremely cross, which is not a good idea since their default setting is rage! And it’s not only the ones you can see that you need to worry about: there are more hiding underwater where they can stay for up to 10 to 12 minutes.

Hippopotamus, Kafue National Park, Zambia

Hippopotamus, Kafue river

Once safely across, we climbed into our vehicle and set off with our guide, Moses. Shortly we came across a breed of antelope which we had not previously encountered, the puku. It is endemic to Zambia, although small numbers also exist in Angola, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Puku, Zambia

Puku, Kafue National Park

After a brief pause to view this gentle introduction to the wildlife, we moved on. We soon came across a significant number of elephants, comprising majestic bulls, mothers and cute little calves (‘little’ is a relative term: a new born weighs more than I do, and after a year they weigh in at about 300kg). It did not require the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to work out, as we sat there, that our presence was not entirely welcome: clues included trumpeting, the stamping of feet and charging. Elephants display two types of charge: the first, which stops short, is designed to make people and things go away, but the second is full on and will not stop until the elephant has hit the object of its ire. We got the second type – fortunately guides can tell the difference between the two! – and adopted the “bat out of hell” approach to evasive driving, which involves the simultaneous release of clutch and handbrake whilst stamping on the accelerator and disappearing in a cloud of dust, thus obscuring the creature’s view and annoying it further.

Elephant, Kafue National Park, Zambia

Elephant, Kafue National Park

After this adrenaline rush, life became somewhat calmer. We drove on through a fairly arid landscape with a mix of live and dead trees. Many of these are mopane, which elephants love to eat. They munch the tops off these relatively stunted trees and move on without doing any replanting, although some seeds do produce new growth once they have passed through the digestive system. We did, however, discover as we drove along that this elephantine waste product has an alternative use as a fly deterrent: our vehicle had a special container for the dung which, when lit, produces a not unpleasant aroma (though one which is hardly likely to challenge the products of the world’s perfume houses) and persuades the insects to go elsewhere.

Landscape of Kafue National Park, Zambia

Landscape of Kafue National Park

Eventually, as we headed towards dusk, we jiggled across a gully, got to the top of the far side, turned left – and found a leopard sitting at the side of the track! Until this moment, in all our wanderings around safari parks, we had only had three sightings, and one of these was rear view only. This sighting lasted about 15 minutes as it sat down, stood up, walked and prowled around and lay down. Eventually it seemed to decide that it had put on enough of a performance for only two spectators, and disappeared from view.

Leopard, Zambia

Leopard, Kafue National Park

We then embarked on the traditional end to an afternoon wildlife drive: a sundowner and night safari. This involves shining a light ahead and trying to pick out the reflections from the eyes of the wildlife (I’m sure the animals will eventually figure out that if they close their eyes as the light swings across they will become invisible!)

Ours was proceeding without much in the way of excitement, when our path was blocked by a number of large creatures crossing the track ahead of us. These turned out to be water buffalo (another animal with which it is best not to argue) and we sat for some time as several hundred of them crossed in front of us. There is one major herd in this part of the park, about 1,400 strong, and I would guess we saw at least half of them. All in all, not bad for a first drive!

Water buffalo, Zambia

Water buffalo, Kafue National Park

The second day might well be described as “Twitcher’s Day” since we were accompanied on our drives by two South Africans who were on a 6,000km road trip from their home in the Cape and who had a deep and abiding interest in birds. Although we had seen many of the major animals on our first drive, we did add hyenas, warthogs and baboons to our collection as the day progressed as well as day and night leopard sightings, but the main focus was on birds.

Now, I am not too bad at the larger birds – I can recognise the fish eagle (not least because of its striking white head), storks and vultures as well as the next man, if not their precise sub-species, but anything smaller and I’m a bit lost. I remain amazed at the ability of guides and serious birdwatchers to identify birds (down to the precise variety of, say, a weaver) when I can only just work out that there is a small flying object somewhere in the distance.

There is no way I could begin to tell you the birds we sighted at the appropriate place in the trip, so I might as well get them all out of the way now, bearing in mind that in most cases we saw more than one variety of each species. We spotted lilac-breasted rollers, Egyptian geese, various storks (including the open-billed and saddle-billed), spoonbills, herons, egrets, hamercops, drongos, hoopoes, bee-eaters, weavers, nightjars, coucals, barbets, jacanas, flycatchers (including the red-bellied paradise version which we found on our own), kingfishers, plovers, ibis, hornbills, firefinches, waxbills (minute birds, being only about the size of a thumb), and guinea fowl (basically a chicken designed by committee, having a rhombus-shaped body, a long thin neck and a disproportionately small turquoise and red head).

Bird, Zambia

Lilac-breasted roller, Kafue National Park

The next day’s morning drive passed without any new sightings or significant events. We were resting up after lunch in our tent when there was an urgent knock at the door and an enquiry as to whether we would like to go and see some lions, which had been spotted on the river bank. We rushed off (taking care to avoid the elephant which roamed the camp), leapt into a speedboat and headed off. We were rewarded with the first lions of the trip, three of which were lying on the river bank in the shade of a large tree. We could not get as close as we might have wished, since there were hippos lurking between us and the shoreline, but it did at least add another tick to the list of required sightings.

Later in the evening we spent a pleasant 90 minutes or so on a sunset cruise along the Kafue river looking out for birds and items or animals of interest on the banks.

Bird on riverbanks, Zambia

Saddle-billed stork, Kafue National Park

Our final morning, before heading off to our next camp, was spent on a walking safari, which in this case was basically an introductory course in dungology, although we did also cover fauna, footprints and mystical beliefs including the story of the shaking coffin. In brief, if a person dies tragically or unexpectedly, the coffin is carried round and directs itself to the door of the person who committed the crime resulting in the death. We did usefully learn that if you see a large hole in a termite mound, it has probably been made by an aardvark, but that it may well have been taken over by something else entirely. Since these other animals are pretty smart, they tend to come out at high speed to avoid the possibility of being ambushed by a predator. It is therefore not recommended to stand in front of the hole since a rapidly moving warthog (for example) is not going to do your shins and kneecaps any good at all.

Warthogs, Zambia

Warthogs, Kafue National Park

We then left Kafue by car for the return journey to Lusaka to catch a flight to our next camp in South Luangwa National Park…

Mike and Chris Simm continue their grand tour of Zambia’s wildlife in Part 2, taking in the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi national parks. If you are interested in arranging your own tailor-made trip, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.

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