In the morning, I head to the nearby sister camp, Potato Bush for a quick visit. A similar layout, but different décor and camp style differentiates Potato Bush from Sausage Tree. With family-style dining, the camp is good for a smaller, more social gathering. The rooms are similar in size to Sausage Tree but are designed in a traditional colonial fashion with warm colors and tapestries. Only a short boat trip away from one another, the camps utilize the same areas for game drives, so the wildlife experience is identical.
I set out upstream to the entrance of the Lower Zambezi National Park, approximately 30 minutes by boat. At the confluence of the Chongwe River and the Zambezi River, I am greeted by the Chongwe River Camp staff, and again a cold towel and a fresh drink. I receive a big welcome hug from one of the managers, Nezzy, and my room attendant, Tryfell, takes me along the pathway to my tent, #6. While the rooms are closer together than the other camps, the simplicity of the tent layout is one of my favorites with room to walk on both sides of the bed, a headboard dividing the room, and a large open-air bathroom that sits lower to the ground behind the bedroom for privacy. With proximity to the water’s edge, I have a young bull elephant as a daily afternoon visitor who I watch bully away baboons and warthogs as he browses and cools himself in the shallow water. I enjoy the variety of birdlife from the room including fork-tailed drongos, red-billed hoopoes, white fronted bee eaters, pied kingfishers, tropical bou bous, waxbills, and more.
After a bit of lemon poppyseed cake at tea and the entertainment of two striped skinks in courtship, we set out for our afternoon game drive. Ronald, my guide, is in his mid-twenties, but what he lacks in extensive guiding history he makes up for in intuition and enthusiasm. We stop to admire the enormity of the hammerkop nest, and Ronald explains that the bird typically lays three eggs, one of which is a decoy. We pass a waterhole used in dry months with a hide that can be a post-dinner “night drive” for guests keen to see nocturnal species. With the number of aardvark dens in the area, it could offer good chances to see these unusual creatures. We find kudu, bushbuck, elephants, hippos, and hoopoe birds on the way to the park gate, which takes us about ten minutes to reach. Ronald explains that in recent months, they have located two transient wild dogs that appear to be pregnant and the male lions from the Chiawa region reign over the western territory with a lioness and cubs somewhere in the area. We stop to admire Cathedral Baobab, aptly named as scientists have dated this magnificent tree to be over 3,000 years old. We find a very relaxed elephant herd with a tiny calf that allows us to remain quietly close by as they casually snack on cumbratum bushes.
We enjoy sundowners in the Inkharange Plains where I enjoy a Malawi Chandy (ginger ale, soda water, and bitters) and snack on mini calzones, hummus, and veggies. The night drive is quiet as the moon grows fuller by the day. We encounter a few scrub hare, bushy-tailed mongoose, and a large spotted genet.
In the morning, the campfire is ready for a breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge, and a cooked egg to order. We depart for the game management area to explore a new region on foot, sandwiched between the foothills of the mountains and the Chongwe River confluence. It is drier, save for the waterhole built by the Royal Zambezi Lodge where a few antelope are lingering including the only zebra I have seen since the first day on safari as they tend to prefer the mountain regions until dry season brings them to the riverfront. We walk down a sandy road with tracks of a lioness that crossed in the night. We continue into a dry riverbed pocked with aardvark holes. We find civet tracks, the web of a funnel web spider, the nests of white-browed sparrow weavers, impala, squirrels, francolins, and a colony of dwarf mongoose. After returning to the vehicle, we drive up the hillside to check out the fly camp site, which offers an impressive view into the valley and the Zambezi River. We return to camp for brunch and a siesta.
Since our last two activities were relatively quiet for wildlife, Ronald makes a plan to venture deeper into the park, and we set off after tea. Twenty minutes later, we are crossing the Chiawa dry riverbed, and after fifteen more minutes, we encounter another guide from Chongwe, Hugo, with his guests who requested a full day trip in the park. I am also reunited with my guide from Chiawa, Chris, who is sitting with his guests near a dense bush that houses a yearling leopard on a fresh impala kill, her mother close by relaxing in the grass. As the adult female stretches and moves into dense cover across the road, Ronald chooses to drive farther down and stops to wait. His instincts were right, and the leopard returns into view, stopping to relieve herself before crossing again into the thick underbrush. We follow for a bit as she uses the dense vegetation for cover, likely making her way to the waterhole to quench her thirst. We skip sundowners in exchange for the company of the yearling leopard who is casually relaxing in the grass. As the sun departs, we get out the searchlight and continue our drive, running into a honey badger not ten minutes later. En route west, we stop for a hunting civet and spot two white-tailed mongoose, impala locking horns, and two thick-tailed bushbabies before returning to camp for my final night in the Lower Zambezi.
After a full week in the Lower Zambezi, I had amazing meals, service, and guiding quality throughout. So, the major differences between camps are locational strengths and camp style. Among those, the Chiawa / Sausage Tree location was by far the best balance of incredible scenery and wildlife viewing, however the Old Mondoro / Anabezi region was by far the most productive area for cats with 14 leopard sightings in three days, 13 of which were from Anabezi alone. Chongwe is a great spot to kick back and enjoy birding right from camp or have access to fly camping and cultural experiences from the nearby villages, but they are a 30-minute drive to reach the Chiawa riverbed which they rely on for the most reliable wildlife sightings. With so much to explore and so much activity variety, my recommendation is to utilize one of the Stay 4 nights / Pay 3 nights specials or a 7-night combination between Chiawa/Sausage and Old Mondoro/Anabezi, if time allows. This year, Zambia is suffering from the worst drought since the inception of Conservation Lower Zambezi 25 years ago, inevitably applying greater pressure on the protected wilderness areas as well as the country’s third pillar of its economy, agriculture. The Lower Zambezi is typically verdant with abundant water holes in May, however this year it is posing more as August conditions with predominantly dry, short grasses. For mammals, this park is best close to peak season, but shoulder season delivered well this year as drought plagued the summer months. If iconic species, such as giraffe are expected, then the park is best blended with other regions in Zambia, Botswana, or South Africa to provide the variety. To learn more, see our sample itineraries.
After a quick campfire breakfast, I am transferred to the nearby Royal Airstrip to board my flight to Livingstone via Lusaka. By mid-morning, I am greeted on arrival in Livingstone and transferred to Tongabezi Lodge located about a half hour upstream from the Zambia side of the mighty Victoria Falls. On arrival, I am escorted with a refreshing welcome drink and cold towel through a chic lobby featuring large, hand-carved wooden doors to the curio shop and serves as the gateway into lush gardens that spread down the hill towards the Zambezi River, weaving public spaces and various rooms into a relaxing retreat where guests can find their own nook to escape and unwind. The guest lounge resembles a bohemian beach house living room that opens to the Zambezi River. My cottage sits nestled above the river with an expansive private deck shaded by mature trees. The cottage entry nook, with small, arched wooden doors, reveals a corridor of blue-black tile, transporting me into a large, bright, rondavel bedroom. Curving around the room, the entrance to the bathroom opens to a claw-foot tub framed by a large picture window and shower of black and white starburst tile.
The lodge offers a variety of activities, however with just one afternoon and having been to Livingstone several times, I opt to relax. After a delicious lunch on the deck of fresh beet salad, carrots, potato fritters, and steak, I am taken on a tour of the Tongabezi houses, each a unique and stunning design. We pass through Nut House, a Greek-inspired suite of white concrete and bright furnishings, Bird House, and my favorite, Tree House, which encompasses its own private corner overlooking a lofty view of the Zambezi. The house envelops a living tree with mahogany floors, an open plan bathroom, changing area, lounge, and bedroom for a luxurious immersion in nature.
Liuwa Plains National Park sits in the remote western corner of Zambia. A unique display of ecosystem duality, the park transforms from shallow wetland into a Serengeti-esque ocean of grass that provides habitat for a unique cross-section of species. Mainly a remote and challenging park for self-drivers due to the deep Kalahari sand, the park has been open to the serviced safari market for only three years with the inception of King Lewanika, and it remains relatively unknown to the safari world.
Departing from the Livingstone Airport to Liuwa Plains, I am the only passenger in the entire airport at 6:30 in the morning. I am greeted by the pilot, Dusty, as I cross into the airport threshold and escorted by a Proflight representative to the awaiting Cessna.
After an hour, we touch down at the Kalabo Airstrip—pot-holed and partially overtaken by grasses. We are surrounded by a cross-section of Liuwa Plain’s history and future with rural fields, one airport hangar where a team from African Parks is conducting a scout training, an office for the local weather meteorologist, and battered buildings occupied by the construction company in charge of paving the road to Angola. I am greeted by Gloria and Isaac from Time + Tide who offer me coffee and cookies while we wait for the helicopter. The departing guests arrive, and we are greeted by the helicopter pilot, David, who exchanges passengers with Dusty. We lift off like a dragonfly, above the paved road where we see a few children and people on bicycles, passing farmland, and quickly soaring over endless grassland. We spot crowned cranes, and David gives us a close-up view of zebra, wildebeest, and circles back to a waterhole with the largest buffalo herd he’s seen since arriving three months prior. We pass over vast grassland and touch down on an island of trees where the team from King Lewanika is waiting to greet us.
From King Lewanika, it is abundantly clear why the company’s name of Time + Tide is so appropriate. Here, as the only serviced camp inside the national park, visitors have all the time to explore at their desired pace. The seasonal nuances, or tides, transform the Liuwa landscape from an Okavango-like oasis of red lechwe with hundreds of birds and water as far as the eye can see into a predator-rich Serengeti-like grassland where wildebeest bulls stake their territories and cheetah disappear into the golden plains. Typically, this time of year, there should be a vast wetland where wildebeest and their calves would be grazing in the plains until June, but because of the drought they have already begun their return journey north towards permanent water. To adjust to the conditions, my time in Liuwa Plains focuses heavily on game drives to locate the resident predator species with the help of tracking data from the Zambia Carnivore Project rather than walking, swimming, and boating.
We are escorted through the forest on pathways of packed Kalahari sand where the unassuming front entrance of King Liwanika opens to expansive grasslands. Gloria explains that the architect’s concept for the lodge was inspired by dragonflies. The pathway from the helicopter curves gracefully through the trees to resemble a tail. The main lounge, with its geometric I-beams braced at 30- and 45-degree angles and connected by grass thatch, is the boxy head of the dragonfly, and the wings are the large, private suites spread out in both directions along the edge of the island.
My open-plan suite is a modern take on canvas tented design with a full wall of floor-to-ceiling mesh windows overlooking the grasslands. The grey, cognac, and beige motif with simple black-trimmed furniture takes an elegant approach to mid century modern design that, warmed by the colors, blends with the natural surroundings, complemented by the bold horizon line of the grasslands. The only sound is the chatter of vervet monkeys and the cooling breeze as it passes from the grassland into the room.
After tea, we set out for the evening drive. The Kalahari sand is so deep that the vehicles must remain perpetually in four-wheel drive, so we cruise casually through the sand and tall grass. Robbie takes us to a grove of trees where he shares the legend of Lady Liuwa, the only lion left in Liuwa after the extirpation of lions by poachers during the civil war in Angola. Auspiciously, she was first discovered beneath the grove of trees where we sit, which was the burial ground for the region’s king and his family. As such, the locals believed her to be the reincarnation of the daughter of their deceased King Lewanika and have celebrated the return of lions to Liuwa to continue their king’s tradition of protecting wildlife. Lady Liuwa passed away a few years ago at an old age but served as the matriarch to a small family of lions who she adopted after they were introduced from Kafue National Park and have passed on their lineage to next generations. We continue to another grove of trees where we discover two young male lions, the offspring of one of the females who was introduced from Kafue National Park named Sepo, meaning “Hope,” who recently died protecting her cubs from a male that had been brought in from Kafue in 2017. We watch the two brothers as they relax in the grass, unaware of their precarious circumstance as two of only ten lions in the entire national park. As the sun sets, the moon is also rising, and we take in what Robbie coins as “ABWAS”, Another Bloody Wonderful African Sunset.
In the morning, I step out of my room with a short walk to the main lounge, keeping an eye out for any visitors. I am unaware that a female cheetah and three cubs were spotted this morning near the staff quarters. I make my way to the campfire where I am poured a fresh cup of coffee, and before Robbie can even make it to his seat, he points behind me, where the island of trees meets the grass on the other side of my tent. “Cheetah!” he whispers excitedly and instructs us to take a seat and remain still as the cheetah leads her cubs away from the lodge and across the field. We continue enjoying our breakfast while Robbie radios the Zambia Carnivore Programme to notify them of the sighting. Shortly after, a motorbike appears and drives off into the field to trail the cats. We follow soon after, keeping a distance as the cheetahs continue in search of food.
With no food options nearby, we decide to investigate a report of hyenas on a kill and plan to return to the cheetahs later. We pull up to three hyenas on a fresh wildebeest kill while a crowd of white-backed and lappet-faced vultures wait their turn for scraps. Nervously, two hyenas work on the carcass with regular breaks to look up, skittishly, as the third hyena keeps watch for competition. They know there are lions nearby. We find another group of three polishing off some bones as the matriarch works on the open skull of a wildebeest. We then return to the cheetahs where we sit and chat with Peter, the researcher for ZCP. He explains that the cheetah is #180 and has three female cubs around a year old. They have identified 15 individuals from fecal samples; however, they have seen more than 20 including three new males. They plan to collar one of the three female cubs once she has stopped growing and have three other cheetahs currently collared. They have also begun collaring the wildebeest to keep track of the herds’ movements and record the interaction with predators as they migrate seasonally.
We watch as the cheetah cubs casually follow mother through the tallgrass. Sadly, as they progress toward an oribi in the distance, one of the cubs accidentally flushes out an animal, taking off at a full sprint until she discovers she is chasing a jackal. Their cover is officially blown with every wildebeest nearby glaring scornfully. They will have to wait patiently until their neighbors forget they are there. We stop for a coffee break on a shaded island of strangler figs and make our way back to camp.
In the evening, we set out with the most recent coordinates from ZCP to relocate the cheetahs, stopping to admire a juvenile saddle-billed stork. A red-necked francolin with a tiny chick scurries through the grasses as the vehicle kicks up fresh scent of sage from the milsonia grasses. By the time we reach the coordinates, however, the cheetahs are nowhere to be found. They have disappeared into the ocean of grass, so we set off to find the lions that, according to ZCP, had stolen the hyena’s wildebeest earlier that day.
The sun hangs low as we approach a grove where we first make out the face of a lioness relaxing in the grass. One face becomes two, then three, and the adolescent female relocates closer to our vehicle, locking eyes with Robbie, then me as she yawns and considers whether we are edible. The anecdotal adage that lions don’t see people in the car is clearly false when faced with a lion making intense eye contact. We sit statue-still while the playful cub stalks its cousin, who in turn, is stalking us. As the cub approaches, her big cousin turns to notice so she pounces playfully. The adolescent female stands up and begins walking toward our vehicle, so Robbie repositions us farther from her, explaining that she has a reputation for puncturing tires. As we move, the cubs slowly stalk the vehicle, and I feel an intrinsic terror at being momentarily, albeit not seriously, targeted by these killers-in-training. Our movement startles the dominant male, and he lifts his head to reveal a beautiful, full, dark mane. He is the son of Sepo—one of the cubs she died protecting. He is also the father of the two males we saw the day prior who are also Sepo’s; a consequence of having too small of a lion population, and one that African Parks and Zambia Carnivore Programme hope to remedy with further, careful reintroductions to reduce the chance of inbreeding without harming the existing population. We missed the sunset but still stop for cocktails, awestruck by the clarity of the full moon. Returning to camp for the evening, we dine on croquettes, basil alfredo linguini, and an apple crumble for dessert.
Today is coldest morning so far, and winter seems to have arrived within the last few days. Robbie plans to take us a new direction farther south about an hour’s drive from the camp to a known hyena den. As we set off, he picks up the radio to collect any updates from ZCP, remembering in typical friendly Zambian fashion to start with polite small talk, asking each other how they are doing this morning and when they might be able to see each other again. We note that the lions passed through camp during the night, stop to observe a white crested helmet shrike and a herd of frisky Zambiensi zebra, a subspecies of Burchell’s, cavorting across the road.
We find a martial eagle on the ground and a side striped jackal before we arrive to the den. Here, we discover two females and eight young cubs. While the females calmly sleep, the cubs hide in the den, a few popping out occasionally to inspect the visitors. There are over 50 members of this den and 7 known active dens in the park. As we return, we stop for a coffee break near a pan where a few bachelor wildebeest are grazing and one cruises through the knee-high water, passing a Temmick’s courser, dozens of crowned cranes, and white pelicans. Further down, we spot a rock monitor lizard. In the only palm tree in the entire park, which legend claims rooted out of the walking stick of King Lewanika, we spot a pair of nesting red-necked falcons.
In the afternoon, we set out for the west in search of the migration herds who have been found in the area, likely attracted to the smoke from agricultural slash and burn fires to combat the poor growing season. We work on our birds as we drive, noting a swallow-tailed bee eater and a hoopoe as we depart from camp. Robbie also identifies a tchagra, black-eyed bou bou, yellow-throated petronia, and southern puffback along the way. At a nearby water pan, we find dozens of waddled cranes intermingling with the relatively dwarfed crowned cranes and watch with amusement as a plucky crowned crane faces off against a towering waddled crane for some unknown offense.
Our barman, Terry, is awaiting with warm towels for us to freshen up and presents a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. “Would you like me to make the popping sound?” he asks with a bright smile, and I respond with the only correct answer, “Yes, please!” We celebrate my final night in Liuwa Plains with champagne, popcorn, and biltong before returning to camp for a traditional Zambian gourmet meal.
Liuwa Plains is a destination that can only be truly known by experiencing it in its various seasons, but April through June is a nice blend that typically allows you to catch the migration of wildebeest as well as the birds and waterways. In April, you may catch the local Losi tribe’s Kuomboka festival when their king moves from his summer home in Lealui to Limulunga. The bird life as well as the carnivore opportunities are well worth the journey for those intrepid travelers who want ultimate exclusivity, flexibility, and unpretentious luxury.
My husband lived in Zambia during graduate school, and during his time in the Eastern Province in the town of Chipata, he began a regimen of jogging daily. This peculiar behavior attracted many onlookers, curious about the new “muzungu,” or white person. On one occasion, a young girl joined him, riding her bicycle alongside, speeding up to race him with a smile but no words exchanged. On a different day, a man joined him, proudly pumping his fist in the air shouting, “JOGGING!” or “EXERCISE!” as they passed amused onlookers. When I tell this story to the Zambians I meet, they always laugh with a knowing satisfaction. Yes, that is what a Zambian would do. It is a country of over 70 tribal languages plus Nyanja, the business-transaction language detached from any tribe, and a history of peaceful coexistence. It is a country of people with a sense of humor; naming their largest mountain in the Lower Zambezi National Park, Chilapira, meaning, “I shall never again,” and the word for scorpion translates to, “cry all day.” There is a joyfulness to people here; a friendliness that has welcomed me on each of my visits over the last ten years. It is a country that currently suffers from a 60% unemployment rate but maintains an infallible spirit. The successes of the tourism industry and the connected conservation efforts reflect this, as they have worked tirelessly for decades with limited budget, a hobbled economy, and a government bloated by inefficient bureaucracy. Despite the challenges, it is a country of genuinely warm, welcoming people who—like their parks—are motivated by an intrinsic energy to do well and a vision for what conservation tourism can achieve.