Zambia: Walk on the wild side

Sussi and Chuma lodge in Zambia.
Sussi and Chuma lodge in Zambia.
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As Zambia celebrates 50 years of independence, Sarah Marshall heads to its smallest national park for a walking safari.

I am walking through the dusty scrubland of Zambia’s Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. As the dipping sun bathes the landscape in warm yellow light, wildlife scout Alfred signals me to edge backwards into a thicket. We’ve stumbled across a rhino at dinnertime and he needs to assesses its mood.

“If you see him tilt his tail upwards, it’s time to exit,” he warns, one hand gripping the rifle slung over his shoulder. Fortunately, the 14-year-old male is more engrossed in his food than the small crowd of spectators that has gathered in front of him.

Observing rhinos at eye level, rather than from the elevated comfort of a safari vehicle, is both exhilarating and humbling. Along with neighbouring Zimbabwe, Zambia is credited as being the birthplace of the walking safari, and it’s still one of the attractions drawing visitors.

Celebrating 50 years of independence this month, Zambia enjoys both political stability and a rapidly developing infrastructure which, in combination with great game and impressive landscapes, makes it a favourable option for safari.

Mosi-Oa-Tunya is the smallest park in Zambia, but it still has massive appeal – mainly in the form of 10 white rhinos currently living within its grounds.

In the 1970s, when the park first opened, there were 60,000 rhinos in Zambia, but by 1989, there were none. The main cause of their demise was poaching, an epidemic which is still sweeping across Africa at an alarming rate. Believed by the Chinese to have medicinal properties and increasingly coveted as a status symbol, rhino horn is now prized as being more valuable than gold as an investment proposition, and sells for $35,000 per kilo on the black market.

In 1992, five white rhinos were successfully translocated from South Africa to Mosi-Oa-Tunya, where the small scale of the fenced park facilitates 24-hour security, and the population has since doubled. Ten guards take it in turns to guard the creatures, following them on foot and often allowing tourists to join them.

A short drive from Livingstone airport and reached by a tarmac road, Mosi-Oa-Tunya is far less wild than Zambia’s bigger, more remote national parks. Fifty years ago, animals were kept here in cages in a set-up more akin to a zoo. When they were eventually released, all predators were relocated elsewhere by the government, so there are no big cats to be found in the park.

The positive impact though, is that the game here is remarkably relaxed and easy to approach. On a drive through a mixture of gnarly bush and open woodland, I encounter buffalo playfully locking horns, elephants bulldozing their way through thickets, and giraffes kneeling down to sleep at dusk, their long necks remaining upright. None are particularly perturbed by a vehicle driving past.

The park is also within easy reach of one of Zambia’s greatest tourist attractions, Victoria Falls. Containing the biggest volume of water of any waterfall in the world, the roaring falls stretch for 1.7km, although the largest slice belongs to neighbouring Zimbabwe. When I visit, the Zambezi river is swollen from heavy rainfall and the water level is high. Following a trail through parkland, I can hear the urgent call of the falls as water rushes over boulders and broken branches in an unstoppable charge.

Further along the Zambezi, sat on my riverside verandah at Sanctuary Retreats’ Sussi & Chuma lodge, I can still hear the rumbling – although at this distance it’s more of a pressing whisper. Guests here sleep in elaborate spherical treehouses on stilts, complete with standalone baths and four poster beds. Stretching along the river, rooms are connected by suspended wooden walkways often patrolled by curious vervet monkeys.

At night, hippos tramp clumsily beneath the rooms, while elephants pass calmly through camp, often stopping to drink at the lodge’s pools.

After sunrise one morning, my guide Junior takes me on a boat ride along the Zambezi. Zambia has the biggest hippo population of any country in Africa, so it’s not long before we run into a series of pink blubbery mounds submerged like stepping stones in the water. As we approach, a male raises his periscope-like eyes, then flips back his head to reveal a jaw full of black teeth dripping with thick, sticky saliva. It’s a warning that we should back off from his territory, and given that hippos can run at up to 20mph under water, I’m not about to challenge him.

Given the abundance of water in the area, it’s surprising to discover that the nearby Nakatindi Village only recently received funding for boreholes. Much of the money came from donations made by the Sussi & Chuma philanthropic arm.

When I arrive in the village, I’m immediately besieged by affectionate children wanting to hold my hand and pestering for sweets. Mavuto, a 28-year-old who has been given the role of village guide, takes care of tourists and shows them around.

His tour begins with an introduction to the local homes: spherical mud huts thatched with elephant grass. With barely any room in the dark chambers, people spend most of their time outside. Two young brothers, Patrick and Julius, take it in turns to play a marimba instrument set up outside their simple dwelling. By striking cattle horns of different sizes, it’s possible to create a musical scale – although both boys seem satisfied with hitting the instrument as hard and as frequently as possible.

Although living only a few kilometres from the national park, the sad reality is that, like most children in the village, these young brothers have seen very few animals in their wild environment.

There are plans though, to take children on trips to visit Mosi-Oa-Tunya’s 10 white rhinos. After all, it is the next generation who will benefit from the protection of rhinos, and in 50 years’ time, hopefully Zambia will have another success story to celebrate.

• Sarah Marshall was a guest of Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma.

A&K (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk; 0845 485 1141) offers a three-night stay, including all meals and drinks (except premium brands), park fees, game drives, tour of Victoria Falls, local school and village tour, sundowner cruise, transfers and international flights with BA, from £2,695pp.