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An East African Journal: Part 1

One of our guests shares the diary from her thrilling family safari to Zambia which was followed by some serious relaxation time on Lake Malawi with her three children aged 10, 9 and 8.

Weds 9th April 2014

We flew into Jo’burg, took another flight to Lusaka in Zambia and finally, after a short flight to the miniscule Mfuwe International Airport, we were greeted by a fabulous peaty aroma on a gust of warm African wind. We felt like 19th century explorers, arriving somewhere remote, as yet uncharted.

Jumping into a huge beige Toyota Jeep, we sped past cheerful waving locals. Many were perched pillion on push bikes while elsewhere tall statuesque ladies sashayed along under vast tin buckets as they portered water. At the gateway to South Luangwa Park a lone giraffe and some impala were lingering.

As dusk fell, we arrived at Nkwali Camp and Robin’s House, a sprawling hut with a thatched roof hunched at the water’s edge. It’s a simple lodge but spacious and salubrious. Not the vast and luxurious “tents” at the Aman we experienced on tiger safari at Rantambour in India, with their wonderful sunken concrete baths and leather chests, but here a much simpler more rustic feel; clean (but not highly polished) concrete floors and lots of fresh cream curtains.

We are staying in Robin’s House, rather than the main house, so that, for the children’s sake (and to save our embarrassment when they misbehave) we'll have our own Jeep and be able to be a little late setting off for the morning or afternoon drive. We paid a little extra for the privilege, but I was incredibly glad of it many times during the trip as the children grew more tired, and therefore less impeccably behaved!

Our guide for the trip is Obi (as in Nobby) and the housekeeper is Cristabel. Lotti is a kind of butler and Felix cleans. We agreed with them to be woken at 5.30am for our first game drive. We are instructed not to allow the children, or ourselves, out at the front of the house as wild animals roam about there. The children must not go to the water’s edge at the back either as the river is full of crocodiles (also known, in local as slang as “flat dogs”)

Thursday 10th April

Five thirty in the morning seemed a little early, but it was going to be worth it. We breakfasted hastily, but amply, outdoors, knocking back the Malarone with coffee, much to Obi’s amusement. Must seem strange to him that we go to such lengths to avoid a disease he regards as inevitable. Meanwhile a small baboon appeared from nowhere and made off with a piece of our toast.

Breakfast over we were led down the steps and onto a waiting speed boat which allowed us to cover the distance to the safari starting point much more quickly than by road. There were lots of sightings of partially submerged hippos as we crossed the water.

Impala sightings were closely followed by some of puku; very similar to impala but with fewer shades of coloration. Then came our first elephant, an old one without tusks, but happily a genetic defect, rather than the work of poachers.

We drove across the sandy river bed, at this time of year (the end of the rainy season) devoid of water, but covered with a plethora of animal tracks. Suddenly we were in the midst of a herd of incredibly sleek zebra, their black stripes and black muzzles standing out forcefully. Perhaps it’s the glow of the warm African sun on their hides, not that it is especially sunny today, though the light has the yellow warmth of Provence.

As we passed another Jeep (we don’t often, giving us a wonderful sense of isolation) the driver told Obi of a large pride of lions, and was breathlessly explaining they had witnessed a near miss kill of a buffalo by the pride. We sped off with high hopes of witnessing a kill (though more than half of me really doesn’t want to see one). In a nearby open plain we found them: fourteen lionesses, a huge pride and strangely, without a male lion. They were all sleek youngsters, bar one limping, scarred old lioness who sat repeatedly on her haunches, struggling to keep up when the pride moved. At first the lionesses sprawled in front of us, gimlet eyes tracking our every move, but clearly unperturbed by our presence. One of them slunk behind the Jeep, clearly eyeing up the children. Only then did I sense any menace, otherwise they seemed misleadingly benign. I long to caress their soft ears and squeeze those vast disproportionate paws.

Speeding back we stopped for coffee and cake at a now leafless Baobab tree, its branches untidily laden with seemingly hastily constructed nests. On our arrival back at Robin lodge, the kids leapt into the plunge pool and we whiled away the afternoon reading and sleeping.

On the evening drive we are also accompanied by John, a trainee guide equipped with gimlet eyes and a strong torchlight. The drive began slowly, a few interesting bird sightings, and a wonderful elephant with the tiniest of babies. We left them in search of leopard as we heard the distant barking of baboons, a sure sign that a leopard was at its work.

It seemed we had been driving along fairly aimlessly for a while, when suddenly we halted and reversed. I became aware of a presence, then a half glimpsed ear, and then as we reversed further, there it sat, a beautiful young leopard resplendent in the African early evening sun. Nothing daunted, it stared at us affably, blinking to show it was unconcerned. Eventually tiring of our paparazzi snapping it slowly raised itself, and sauntered off with its tail held perfectly, tip curling up just a few inches off the ground to reveal a white fluffy underside.

We had another wonderful dinner under the stars, not so many as you might hope for due to the slightly cloudy sky, but nevertheless fabulous.

Friday, 11th April

A slightly later start: 6 am, as we have no animals to track down at dawn. We leave by jeep and spot a minuscule baby monkey clinging to its mother’s back. Then there are shops, houses, people and we pull off into a big compound with severe looking buildings and a Zambian flag planted in a concrete bed in the center and a few trees near the buildings for shade. This is the Yosefe School in Mfuwe. We're immediately mobbed by a sea of friendly, smiling, eager, faces and met by a teacher whose husband is one of the owners of Robin Pope safaris.

After an insightful tour of the school, Solomon, the Headmaster, leads us out to final assembly under the great trees which give shade to a crowd of tightly packed children. They have set up seats for us on the entrance to a building which serves as a podium, and we introduce ourselves to the children. Awards are being handed out for good exam results.

Finally, we're treated to a rendition of the English version of the Zambian national anthem, sung with clear diction and great enthusiasm. We sign the visitors’ book and bid farewell to Solomon, the school children surrounding our Jeep as if we were celebrities.

Back at Robin’s House, lunch was a buffet of chicken skewers salad and cheddar and courgettes muffins followed by custard tart. The afternoon slipped away effortlessly between napping and reading, culminating in lemon cake for tea before we were whisked off on the evening drive.

Tonight we are blessed with a magnificent sunset, with unmistakably African trees silhouetted against huge pink and yellow swathes of color sharply contrasting with an indigo sky.

As we are engrossed in conversation we have momentarily forgotten our environment. I am reminded of it by Obi’s calm but insistent call for everyone to return to the Jeep. We are slowly but surely being surrounded by elephants. In this light their weak eyes will barely be able to discern us, but we seem to be very much in the way of the route they had planned to take.

They come close, too close, and Obi is ready to rev the engine to frighten them. Driven (as opposed to walking) safari guides carry no gun, so the only weapon is noise and a hasty retreat in the vehicle.

Our seemingly rather tame evening drive has suddenly become more real somehow. Night has fallen now, a rapid, unobserved, curtain drop. John, draped in one of the vast tartan lined capes, is perched over the side of the jeep craning and strobing the landscape with his beam.

Driving through the African wilderness at nightfall has its own excitement, even without animal action.

As we think we are nearing the end of our drive, a pair of elephant eyes emerges from nowhere right in front of the vehicle. Stop we must, and wait. The elephant however has no intention of moving and stays put, munching contentedly. She is an immutable object, so we must back up. Just as we think we have evaded her with a minimal detour through the seemingly impenetrable bush, we are charged laterally by an elephant which stops short a couple of feet from the Jeep. Genuine squeals of horror from Natasha and Oliver as we are in the row of seats our leathery friend was headed for. Happily it’s a baby elephant, so less threatening. Fearing of becoming between a mother and its calf, Obi thrusts the Jeep forward quite violently and we are off again into the inky blackness racing through the long grass.

We are home late after all this last minute drama, and dinner is served almost immediately. As Lotti proudly regales us with the description of tonight’s sumptuous offering (beetroot and goats cheese salad, beef and couscous followed by chocolate tart and mascarpone) we hear a wonderful rhythmic distant drum beat: the call to dinner at the main lodge building which has just now become occupied.

Saturday 12th April

This morning’s highlight was wild dogs. Sightings of them are apparently a rarity, so we raced off in pursuit. We pulled up quietly alongside another jeep and saw 6 or 7 slightly mangy looking dogs. It is not that they’re unhealthy looking, just that they are probably what you’d get if you asked a very small child to draw a dog: the ears and muzzle are slightly misshapen, the coat is a comedy of errors: four different dogs of brown, black, white and tan, and a sudden outbreak of spots, crudely stitched together with an incongruous fluffy duster for a tail.

The dogs were already itching for a kill, eyeing up the as yet unsuspecting impala on the horizon. The dogs dropped low to the ground. The impala are alert and poised now, sensing danger without having seen it. The second they sight the dogs, the impala are off, stick legs bounding and sprinting by turns in an effort to cover the greatest distance possible. Impala and dogs now interspersed, they race across the plain. We see no kill.

Lunch is heralded by the wonderful rhythmic drum beat. A fabulous feast of salads, beef and butter bean, grated carrot drenched in cinnamon and peppered with raisins. Watermelon laced with a powerful mint to follow.

By the evening drive my eight year old, Oliver is exhausted and the rhythmic pounding of the jeep sends him to sleep in my lap. He slumbered on as we approach a sausage tree, in which two leopards become visible. A little cub perched on its haunches in the base of the tree and a larger one (her mother) sprawling along a fallen branch. Her other cub is invisible, but we can see the higher branches twitching, eventually the tip of a tail can be seen and little by little he slips lower crunching on the remains of the Puku and growling. The mother has kept a little for herself, which she is unwilling to share with the third cub. All three however seem relatively contented.

Lotti is his charming and chatty self at dinner. I shall miss his habitual counter-idiomatic question: “some top up M’aam?”

 Sunday 13 April: Malawi bound…

Part 2 is coming soon, keep your eyes peeled on our blog!

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