Bushcamping in wild Zambia

 

The bus from Lusaka zoomed at an alarming speed along the highway, flying over the speed bumps in the road meant to make traffic slow down as it enters and cuts through Kafue National Park – a protected area the size of Wales around Kafue River. But the bus driver had no intention of slowing down. In the back sat a couple of excited, although somewhat apprehensive norwegians, watching their map, and then out the window, and back to the map again.

The people from Mayukuyuku camp site had told us to get off at Hook Bridge for pickup, but it was not on our map, and the only other tourist on the bus had disembarked a few minutes ago, leaving us to wonder if we should have done the same. Asle went to the front of the bus to ask the driver once again …

Bush camping

Mayukuyuku

Old Africa

Konkamoya

Camping with hippos and lions

Mayukuyuku Bush Camp

As he made his way down the narrow isle, a small and sharp piece of metal protruding from one of the time-worn seats dug its way into his lower leg, creating an open wound that would later form a nice scar to remember it by. Again, the driver’s non-answer left us less than reassured. Soon the bus crossed a bridge over a wide river and raced on. The Kafue River – that must have been it! But the driver didn’t seem to react and kept driving. Suddenly, an open safari car appeared on the road beside the bus, its driver waving and honking for us to pull over. A moment later we threw our bags onto the safari car, relieved, and were greeted by Boyd, a sweet guy and guide at Mayukuyuku. After turning back and picking up Karen, the woman who had jumped off the bus before us, we went off the main road and into the bush.

After a while, the campsite opened up before us, beautifully located by the Kafue River. Our tent was already set up and placed by a clearing in the bushes along its banks. A handful of other tents were scattered about, right on the ground, no fences or walls — this was true bush camping. Boyd showed us the path to the main lapa, a semi open gazebo made of local wood, warning us to be careful when making the way In the dark at night, as lions had recently been spotted wandering into the compound. And to look out for hippos coming up to feed in the evening. Oh, and snakes. Great! We couldn’t be more excited — this was exactly what we had looked forward to. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of raw and wild nature, and where better to experience that then in a place where everything seems to be out to kill you.

Tonight there was talk of a river boat safari, and we signed up. Gliding down the river on a small motorboat we spotted crocodiles and elephants and all kinds of beautiful birds, and as the evening came the engine was stopped so we could enjoy a sundowner over the quiet waters before heading back to the camp. The trip back through the dense bush in the black of night turned in to a true night safari, with our guide in front with a powerful torch, sweeping the surrounding bush looking for wildlife. Suddenly, he stopped his sweeping and bounced the light up and down, signalling he’d spotted something. For a brief moment we could all see the shape of a large cat moving quickly between the trees before vanishing into the thicket — a leopard for sure. Everyone was very excited, and for us it was a very good start indeed.

Beate is ready for an evening drive / River safari / River view at Mayokuyoku

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Don’t mind the hippo behind your tent …

or the lion in front of you

It was pitch black at the campsite when we returned, and after dinner and a couple of drinks, Boyd offered to drive us back to the tent so we didn’t have to walk there alone in the dark. We hopped into the safari car and drove the short distance through the bush between the lapa and the campsite, Steven with one hand on the wheel and in the other his torch, looking for animals. When you’re bush-camping, even a short walk or drive to your tent offers a chance to do some game-viewing. “Hippo”, Boyd suddenly said, just as our tent came into view in front of us. And sure enough, in the light from his torch we saw it, a huge hippo standing quietly eating just a few meters behind the small tent that was to be our home for the night. The rest of the evening we spent sitting on a couple of camping chairs in front of it, in complete darkness listening to the enchanting sounds of the bush; The insects singing in the trees, frogs chirping and hippos grunting from the river — and one happy hippo munching away right behind us. Every now and then we’d have to take our torch and go round just to check on him to be sure he wasn’t moving too close. Thankfully, he never did.

We sat like that for a good while, soaking up the experience, thrilled to be in such a magical place — beautiful, peaceful and slightly nerve-wrecking at the same time. When it was time for bed, we got out our tooth brushes and started walking towards the bathrooms located a short stroll away behind us. We could only see a few meters ahead in the darkness, so we followed the path slowly and quietly, shining the torch light in the bushes as we went. But, after walking only a few meters, we heard an ominous and unmistakable sound. The deep growl of a lion came from somewhere in the blackness in front of us, almost as a warning not to come closer. We stopped in our tracks, our hearts were racing. Without a word we started walking slowly backwards before we turned and practically ran back again. “That was a lion!” we quietly screamed at each other, enthralled and terrified at the same time. Suddenly, the peaceful hippo behind our tent didn’t seem quite as scary as it did a moment before. We bid him good night, and agreed to forgo dental hygiene until morning.

We spent four days at Mayokuyoku, going on game drives, taking walks along the river and sitting in the dining area watching hippos, birds and elephants crossing the shallow waters in the distance. We didn’t see the lions we heard that first night, but on our last evening drive we would have another unforgettable encounter of the feline kind. Kafue was about to deliver on its promise to be one of the best places in Africa to see Leopards.

Crashing a leopard family dinner

It was just the two of us on the drive with guides Boyd and Mario. It started out good, a few elephants close to the campsite, birds and antelopes. But after a while it got quiet. It was as if all life in the bush had suddenly vanished. Then, dark clouds slowly filled the sky, and suddenly a lightning storm exploded in the horizon not too far away from us as we stopped in a clearing for sundown. We hadn’t seen many animals so far, but at least we could enjoy the amazing light show. As the sun went down somewhere behind the black cover of clouds it was time to continue driving. The bush had been quiet tonight, but the forbidding weather had made it an interesting experience nonetheless. As we approached the final path to the campsite we had pretty much accepted the lack of wildlife on this drive — you get what you get in the bush.

As we were approaching the campsite, we weren’t even paying attention to the light from Boyd’s torch anymore. But then the car suddenly stopped. There was something moving in the bushes. A leopard! Only a few meters from us, just off the road, a beautiful leopard jumped from the ground and up on a log. She was panting, clearly exhausted after a hunt. And on the ground just a couple of meters from us lay a small dead antelope, twisted and bloody. Further back we could make out another leopard, and one or two cubs, disappearing into the forest, but the hunter stayed there on the log resting, watching the family’s dinner, and for a few minutes we sat in quiet, absorbing the gorgeous sight of her. What luck, after hours of nothing to see, to stumble upon one of the most amazing creatures of the African bush, and just in time for dinner too!

Our leopard sighting became the talk of the campsite on our final couple of days at Mayokuyoku. Next, our plan was somehow to make our way south through the park, stop at some other place for a night or two, and then head for the town of Livingstone by Victoria Falls. Exactly how was not yet clear, but then Karen, who we by now had gotten to know quite well, told us she was going in the same direction, and had arranged to be picked up by the owner of a safari lodge down south. We happily agreed to join her.

A taste of old Africa

Konkamoya – Follow The wind

It was a long drive down from Mayokuyoku to Konkamoya Lodge, but the brand new Land Rover open safari car had thick padded seats so we were quite comfortable. In the back sat Karen and us, and in the front was Andrea and Laura, Italian part-time expats and owner and manager of Konkamoya lodge, chatting away with classic Italian energy. Andrea was at the wheel, and his driving clearly revealed his Milanese upbringing as he navigated the gravelled road and its many bumps and potholes at full speed, cigarette in one hand and the other alternating between holding the steering wheel and making conversational gestures. It was totally enjoyable, furiously hot, but the open car gave us a nice breeze. We also spotted several animals on the way, among them a herd of magnificent Sable antelopes.

By the time we reached the lodge, it was already starting to get dark. We drove clear of the bush and stopped next to the main lapa at Konkamoya Lodge. With a view of the Iteshi Teshi lake, it had a high roof, stone floors and was stylishly decorated with dark wooden furniture, african art and huge skulls of various local wildlife, — creating a romantic colonial feeling. The long dinner table was being set for a late communal supper, so we sat down in the lounge sofas at the open end of the lapa. In front of us the grassy plains and the huge lake was bathed in golden light from the setting sun behind. Antelopes were grazing quietly, Hippos were grunting, and African fish eagles called from the tops of the many dead trees in the water, drowned by the man-made lake long ago. It was simply a stunning place.

Laura and Andrea taking us to Konkamoya Lodge / The lapa at Konkamoya / Pukus by the lake

There’s something out there

“We could go out and look at the lions …
Or we could go back and watch the leopard I just saw by my bungalow”

We joined the handful of other guests, Andrea and Laura at the table for an exquisite Italian style meal and cheerful conversations. There was an air of excitement, as it often is on safari, heightened by the lovely surroundings and the joyful demeanour of our hosts. Sitting at one end of the table was Steven, head guide and a man with extensive experience spotting wildlife in South Louangwa. Just as we were finishing our desserts, he suddenly said: “listen!”. It was the call of a Puku, an antelope, somewhere in the dark in front of us. Then we heard it again, two loud whistles. “It’s a danger call”, Steven explained. “There’s something out there”.

Steven got out an incredibly powerful LED torch, and searched the plains. “There! Two lions.” And there they were, strolling casually across the clearing. “Should I go get the car?”, Andrea asked, somewhat rhetorically. We all waited in excitement, and when he came back, he had a smart look on his face. “Well, listen. We could go out and look at the lions … or we could go back and watch the leopard I just saw by my bungalow”, he said with a big smile. We all laughed at the ridiculous choice, before agreeing to continue with the lions. Leaving our half-eaten desserts behind, we got in the car and drove out in the darkness to track them.

Andrea at the head of the dinnertable.

Lions doing what they do best — not much.

Pristine wilderness

At the end of the day we retired to our tent in the bush. Actually, the word “tent” seems utterly inappropriate considering the size of the thing. Erected on a wooden platform, it had a huge bed, a sitting and dressing area, a spacious open air bathroom, and a level of comfort and luxury as high as it can be while still calling it camping. Every morning we’d wake up to a view of the sunrise above the lake in front of us, sensing the smell of the wood fire heating water in a cast iron tank outside our bathroom.

After a cup of tea we’d head for the Lapa for a quick breakfast. At night we’d sit on the deck in front of our tent, watching the crystal clear southern hemisphere constellations fill the sky above us. We’d usually do morning drives at sunrise and, after a midday siesta, an evening drive ending at a scenic spot for sundown and gin and tonics. There were numerous birds, the open plains filled with antelopes, and we encountered buffalo, zebra and even a herd of magnificent Eland, the largest antelope in the world.

Elephants were always present, sometimes in huge numbers, the largest herds we’d ever seen. And, of course, the cats – lions, magnificent leopards, and even a quick glimpse of the elusive African Genet. But, perhaps best of all was what we did not see: other tourists. As serious efforts at developing tourism has occurred only recently, Kafue is still a near pristine wilderness where you can drive off-road and explore for days without encountering anyone else. An increasingly rare thing.

wow, you’re gorgeous … please don’t eat me

We ended up staying at Konkamoya for ten wonderful days, collecting many lasting memories. Like the time Karen could not come out of her tent for lunch because of the three huge elephants surrounding it; Jumping in our seats at the sight of a large hippo running across the road in front of our car at night; The family of warthogs sprinting, tails up, from their burrow to the bush; The sight of over two hundred elephants moving across the grass in the glow of sunset after a nice mud-bath; Or, staring into the hypnotic gaze of a large leopard, thinking: “wow, you’re gorgeous … please don’t eat me”. But perhaps most memorable of all was the beauty of the place and the people. It was a rare luxury for us. Andrea, Laura, Stephen, Gift and the rest of the staff made us feel more like a part of the family than anything else, and we’ll always be thankful for the experience.

On our last night, Andrea and Laura took Karen and us for one last game drive along the lake. We finally reached a herd of elephants and stopped to watch as hundreds of the magnificent animal moved right by us into the bush and down to the lake again on the other side. Their trumpeting and stomping felt almost like a farewell, sadly reminding us we were leaving the next day. Kafue National Park is a true natural gem. You won’t see big game with the same frequency here as in, say, the Serengeti or Kruger. But, at the same time you won’t see anywhere near as many people either. The variety of wildlife is staggering, the park vast and unspoilt, and when you stay in a place like Konkamoya Lodge, with its luxury tents and air of nostalgia, you’d be forgiven for feeling like you’ve been transported back to colonial times, when most of Africa was still wild and untouched.

When you stay in a place like Konkamoya Lodge, with its luxury tents, personal service and air of nostalgia, you’d be forgiven for feeling like you’ve been transported back to colonial times, when most of Africa was still wild and untouched.

A rare glimpse of the African Genet / Beate enjoying the drive / Luxury camping / Steven tracking a hyena / The whole crew at Konkamoya

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